Malkin, Crosby too tough an assignment

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The two best players still standing in the Stanley Cup playoffs were on the ice at Mellon Arena last night and neither of them was in the uniform of the Philadelphia Flyers.

That's not a good thing in competitive athletic situations.

The Flyers' vaunted balance vs. the Penguins' celebrated star power -- Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby -- was a mismatch in this first game of the Eastern Conference final. Balance goes only so far, especially when the other team has Malkin and Crosby -- to say nothing of Marian Hossa.

Superstars prevailed, 4-2, in front of a delirious crowd of 17,132. Malkin scored twice and Crosby once, on an assist for Hossa. Petr Sykora, another vital cog in the offense, also scored.

For all the Flyers talent, they have three strong lines, none of their forwards matches up in skill with Malkin or Crosby or, for that matter, Hossa.

That was one large advantage for the Penguins.

Another was the absence of defenseman Kimmo Timonen, perhaps Philadelphia's best player, who is expected to miss the entire series with a blood clot.

If that wasn't enough -- and it was -- the Penguins, as near as could be determined, had the better goaltender in Marc-Andre Fleury. Although in fairness to the Flyers' Martin Biron, Fleury didn't have to face Malkin and Crosby.

"I thought we got the start we needed, we got the shots on net, we had the lead, but we didn't manage the puck," said Philadelphia coach John Stevens.

"Giving up rushes against Crosby and Malkin, that's the game you can't play."

It was Malkin, who came into his own when Crosby was injured for more than a third of the regular season, who undid the Flyers. While Crosby has been less than 100 percent with the high ankle sprain that caused him to miss 28 games, Malkin has grabbed the postseason stage and won't let it go. He continues to forge his own identity. He's no longer the other center behind Crosby. He's challenging Crosby for the right to be called the best player on the Penguins, if not the NHL.

With less than 10 seconds remaining in the first period and maybe when some of the Flyers had relaxed, Malkin got the puck from Ryan Whitney, bore down on Biron and lasered a puck to the wide side to give the Penguins a 3-2 lead.

It was the kind of play the superstars make. It was a play that swung the game in the Penguins favor, after they had come back from a 2-1 deficit. It inspired the Penguins and deflated the Flyers.

"It gave us confidence in the second period," said Penguins coach Michel Therrien. "It gave us the confidence we needed to play."

Malkin wasn't through tormenting Biron. Early in the second period, he toasted him again. Malkin was slow getting back into the play after he had been crushed against the boards behind the Flyers goal and knocked to the ground by Mike Richards, who scored both Philadelphia goals. As the play went down the ice, he slowly came back.

But, by the time he was at his blue line, the Penguins had the puck. Sergei Gonchar flipped it to him just outside his blue line. Malkin skated in alone on Biron.

For all his skills, this is not Malkin's strength. He's rarely sent out to participate in shootouts. Who can forget his feeble attempt on a penalty shot against the New York Rangers? Well, here he was again on what amounted to another penalty shot. This time it was Malkin the superstar, not Malkin the hesitant.

Biron didn't have a chance as Malkin would up and blistered a slap shot into the net.

"In that situation, I didn't have a lot of time to think," Malkin said through an interpreter. "It's not really a penalty shot when you think how you're going to make the move. I had a few second to think and I decided to shoot as hard as I could."

Crosby was asked if he had ever seen a slap shot from so close. "Whatever works," he said. "It was a great shot."

Crosby had been taking criticism for his lack of goal-scoring in the playoffs, although he had 12 assists and was tied with Malkin with 14 points. With the Penguins down, 2-1, with about six minutes remaining in the first period, Crosby took a pass from Hossa and threw it past Biron.

The game, befitting a contest of such importance, was hard-hitting with bodies flying. That's not always the time for superstars, but Therrien looked to his.

"Our good players play hard," he said. "They don't back down. Malkin, Hossa, Crosby, those type of players they play hard."

Hard and good -- too good for the Flyers.


Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com .


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