Simple, smart play nets near-perfect win

A team that plays a perfect game does not allow a goal.

It doesn't take a handful of marginal penalties, and it certainly doesn't fail to convert on any of its five power plays.

So understand that the Penguins' 7-1 victory against Philadelphia at Mellon Arena was not without its blemishes.

There just weren't many of them. Not nearly enough to create any real uncertainty about how the game would play out.

"When we play simple and play smart," defenseman Hal Gill said, "we're tough to beat."

Near-impossible if yesterday's game is taken at face value.

The Penguins scored seven times for the second consecutive game, and might have had more goals than the Flyers had serious scoring chances.

"What I'm most impressed with is our defensive game," Penguins coach Michel Therrien said. "We stuck to our system from the beginning to the end."

By the middle of the first period, the only real suspense centered on how long Flyers goalie Martin Biron would remain in the game, and whether Penguins center Evgeni Malkin would be able to wipe out the seven-point deficit that separated him from Washington's Alex Ovechkin in the NHL scoring race.

Flyers coach John Stevens ultimately yanked Biron after just a shade over 24 minutes, and Malkin had to settle for scoring two goals and setting up two others. Ovechkin was shut out in the Capitals' 2-1 shootout victory against Boston a few hours later, leaving Ovechkin's lead at three points.

More important, the Penguins raised their record to 41-24-7, climbed to within a point of first-place New Jersey in the Eastern Conference and pared their magic number for clinching a playoff berth to nine.

While pretty much everyone who skated a shift made a meaningful contribution, the Ryan Malone-Malkin-Petr Sykora line was dominant from the earliest moments of the game.

Malkin and Sykora had four points each, while Malone chipped in with two assists and more of the rugged play that has become a cornerstone of his game this season.

The Penguins still have to figure out what Sidney Crosby's line will look like when he returns from resting his high ankle sprain (although Marian Hossa is a virtual lock to be on his right side), but Therrien might want to seriously consider putting a tamper-proof seal on the Malone-Malkin-Sykora unit.

"We really feel like we fit together," Sykora said. "And we back it up with our results."

Sykora's two-goal game was his 32nd in the NHL; his next three-goal game will be his first.

"It is amazing, the way he scores goals, that he doesn't have a hat trick," defenseman Brooks Orpik said.

Intriguing as it is that a guy with 272 goals at this level -- 25 of them this season -- never has managed to get three in a game, Sykora doesn't fixate on that stat.

"I have some years in front of me," he said, smiling. "So, hopefully, I'm going to get one."

Hossa, who played his first game at Mellon Arena since being acquired from Atlanta Feb. 26, had a satisfying afternoon, too. Not only because he scored his first goal as a Penguin, but because he experienced no major problems with the sprained knee that prevented him from playing for 2 1/2 weeks.

"The most important thing for me was how the knee was going to feel," Hossa said. "It felt good. The goal was just a bonus."

Stevens used both of the Flyers' goalies over the course of the afternoon. Unfortunately for his team, never at the same time.

After Biron allowed three goals on eight shots, he was replaced by Antero Niittymaki.

The Penguins ended up shooting 7 for 36 from the field, while Philadelphia got just one of 25 shots past Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who rarely was tested.

"The saves he's making, it's important for the goalie to make those kinds of saves," Therrien said. "You don't want to give life to a team. We need a goalie who doesn't give up bad goals, and is solid."

Fleury didn't have to be perfect. Not on a day when his teammates come so close to it.

Dave Molinari can be reached at . First Published March 17, 2008 4:00 AM


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