Malkin leads the way as Penguins finally down Flyers

Penguins 4, Flyers 3

The Penguins had to play 260 minutes, 38 seconds before they could get a lead -- a simple one-goal advantage -- on Philadelphia this season.

Considering that, needing an even 300 minutes to finally earn a victory against the Flyers doesn't seem so bad.

The Penguins, of course, didn't lose the first four games of the season series to Philadelphia by design, and their 4-3 victory at Mellon Arena yesterday might not have been worth such an extended wait. Still, the importance, practical and psychological, of finally defeating the Flyers is hard to overstate.

"You get beat by a team two, three, four times in a row and sometimes you don't feel good about yourself, even going into the game," Penguins goalie Ty Conklin said.

True enough, but the Penguins (32-19-5) have lots to feel good about today. Like how they own a three-point lead over second-place New Jersey in the Atlantic Division and have a four-point edge on the Flyers.

And how they trail Northeast Division leader Ottawa by a mere three points, which means they are as close to first place in the Eastern Conference as they are to second in their own division.

Not that overtaking the Senators for the top seed in the East figures to dominate locker-room conversations in coming days. Not with nearly two months left in the regular season.

"There are so many games left," winger Petr Sykora said. "We just have to continue doing what we've done lately. If we do that, we'll have a chance to stay there."

It's safe to assume few observers expected the Penguins to be where they are now when Sidney Crosby went down with a high ankle sprain Jan. 18. Even fewer envisioned them going 6-2-2 in their first 10 games without Crosby.

"The Penguins, without Crosby, they're playing even better," Flyers forward R.J. Umberger said. "Everybody's digging in and doing the job."

No one better than center Evgeni Malkin. He scored one goal and set up three others against the Flyers for his first four-point game of the season, and has at least three points in four of the past five games.

If he maintains something close to that pace -- an awful lot to ask of any mortal -- the question won't be whether he will win the NHL scoring championship, but precisely when he will break Wayne Gretzky's record of 215 points in a season.

"He's the hottest player in the NHL right now," Umberger said.

Malkin has eight goals and 13 assists in the 10 games since Crosby was hurt and trails Washington winger Alex Ovechkin by three points in the scoring race.

Speaking through interpreter George Birman, Malkin allowed that he has "never had a stretch like that" in the NHL or the Russian Super League. Nobody bothered mentioning to him that very few players have.

Malkin's play in his first 134 games in North America has been enough to earn him a loyal following among fans. But if not, the sentiments he expressed about the Flyers surely would have.

"That's one of the teams that it's not really a pleasure to play against," he said. "When we play there, we have problems, like people throwing popcorn on the bench. I don't really like playing against them. I don't like that team."

Umberger, meanwhile, is a Plum native who seems to have it in for the team he followed while growing up. He scored Philadelphia's first two goals, which means six of his 11 this season have come against the Penguins.

"I can't really put a finger on it," Umberger said, "except that I get a little extra excited to play against them."

Lucky for the Penguins it's just a little extra. If Umberger got really worked up, he might be good for a hat trick every time he faces them.

Umberger and Sykora traded goals in the first period before Sergei Gonchar put the Penguins in front to stay during a four-on-three power play 38 seconds into the second period.

Malkin made it 3-1 at 18:43, but Umberger revived the Flyers with a goal 46 seconds into the third. What appeared to be an insurance goal by Kris Letang at 12:14 morphed into the winner when Scott Hartnell scored for Philadelphia with 33 seconds left in regulation.

Serious as that late scare was, it didn't cost the Penguins two of their most satisfying points of the season.

"Obviously, it was crazy there at the end," defenseman Ryan Whitney said. "It's about time we beat them."

First Published February 11, 2008 5:00 AM


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