Commentary: It's sinking in -- Penguins are for real

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PHILADELPHIA -- Martin Biron sank into Game 3 like a septuagenarian descending the steps of the Broad Street Subway at midnight.

He was cautious. He was creaky. He was, in those first minutes, more than just a little pathetic.

It was all a little stunning in the minutes after an orchestrated pre-game wallop of emotion that the organ-I-zation choreographed to jump-start the home team from a 2-0 ditch in the Eastern Conference finals.

That the Flyers responded with no hop whatsoever was not merely inexplicable; it was immediately compounded by their goaltender's diffidence.

Biron seemed frozen as Ryan Whitney's shot kissed off the pads of Philadelphia's Jason Smith and leaked into the home team's net for a power-play goal barely five minutes into the festivities, and didn't look close to thawed when Marian Hossa's wrister came at him from between the kneecaps of teammate Lasse Kukkonen two and a half minutes later.

In that instant, Biron had essentially given the Flyers a deficit to twin with their overall predicament: down by 2-0 here and everywhere, and queasy as could be.

But before we hang too much of this on No. 43 in black, let's drop the pretense that this postseason is really about anything except the mutual excellence of these Penguins and their worthies in waiting, your Detroit Red Wings. In alternating shifts for going on a week now, the Penguins torment Philadelphia, then retire to their sofas to watch the Red Wings put the puck in their pockets and skate rings around the overmatched Dallas Stars, extracting the biscuit periodically to jam in Dallas's net.

Maybe it looks this easy because it is.

"What can I say?" asked Hossa, who added an empty-netter in the final minute for a 4-1 skunking of the bully boys. "We are focused and we play as a team, and when we play defense, which we do most of the time, we can create some rushes. If we can just continue to play defense, we can be successful because we have the talent to score goals."

It wasn't so much that the Flyers have lost the talismanic impact of '70s icons like Kate Smith (still singing "God Bless America" via the Jumbotron) and Randy Jones (still playing defense for the Flyers 22 years after his turn as the San Diego Padres representative and starting National League pitcher the All-Star Game at doomed Veterans Stadium); it's that the Penguins have merely dealt with the Flyers in the same dismissive manner in which they'd discarded the Ottawa Senators and New York Rangers before them.

Philly's problems last night were essentially cumulative by the time the third period rolled around. Pittsburgh was 8-0 in these playoffs when scoring first, 7-0 when leading after two periods. But just as it had every time in a postseason of serious overachievement, when the Flyers got in trouble, they stuck in their thumb and pulled out a Plum native, the irrepressible R.J. Umberger, who pumped in the rebound of Vaclav Prospal wraparound attempt halfway through the first to try and raise the dead.

He couldn't.

"We have to still improve," Jarkko Ruutu inside what's become an expectantly pleased Pittsburgh dressing room. "This feels good, but you don't want to give them any life. We just have to get a fourth win. It's not over."

Not by the compulsory math, but now that the Penguins have failed only in getting to the morning after Game 3 in all three series with something other than a 3-0 lead, maybe it's time to validate a notion best thought left unspoken, but no more.

The Penguins are simply too much.

Too fast. Too precise. Too disciplined. And too reliably backstopped by the consistently brilliant Marc-Andre Fleury. All of it too much of a mountain for anyone on this side of the Conferencial Divide.

Even within the mandatory confidence of professional athletes, did anyone in the room think this team was capable of winning 11 of the first 12 postseason games?

"You never think that way," Ruutu said. "It doesn't matter how you keep going, just so you keep going."

You might change your thinking now that the Penguins walked into this building where they hadn't won all year, where they were supposed to get jumped by a desperate hockey club stung by misfortune, and turned the Flyers into the jumpees.

"It was important to get off to a good start," said Ryan Malone, whose third-period goal flew past Biron like a dagger in the night. "I think we weathered the storm."

There was a storm?

Looked more like a low-pressure system.

A Red storm would surely await in Detroit, but there remains no demonstrable shelter from these Penguins.

"This is a young team that plays a mature game," Penguins coach Michel Therrien said late last night. "They're all committed to defense, and that's what I like about them. When you commit defensively, you have a chance to win."


Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283.


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