Max Talbot certainly isn't the first guy to be beaten and robbed in South Philadelphia, but he's likely one of the few to be victimized in shifts.
Mike Richards stole a hockey puck from him and fired it at the Penguins' net late in the first period yesterday, with Mike Knuble ripping home the rebound to put the Flyers on their way to a 3-0 lead. But it wasn't until early in the second that Talbot was beaten fairly savagely about the face and head by Philadelphia mauler Daniel Carcillo in an incident that would have been a footnote to Game 6 (actually more like a facenote) had not something momentous unfolded in the direct aftermath of the assault.
When Talbot and Carcillo floated to their respective holding cells at 4:21 of the second period, the Penguins were adrift somewhere in 95 minutes and 13 seconds of goal-free offensive hockey.
Fourteen seconds later, Ruslan Fedotenko scored the first of five Penguins goals that turned a frothing Wachovia Center sellout into a wake for a Flyers season that ended in stunningly close proximity to its apex.
Everyone thought not.
"I had to make up for [turning the puck over]," Talbot said in a highly satisfied Penguins dressing room. "That seemed like a good way to do it."
The fight lasted less than a minute, the first 15 seconds being consumed by both parties' inability to get their hands free, but, once that was accomplished, Carcillo landed several hard rights that drove Talbot to the sheet.
"I can see where him fighting might get them going," said Carcillo, who served a one-game suspension earlier in this series for leveling Talbot on a faceoff. "Even him just showing up; it doesn't matter whether you win or lose.
"In hindsight, maybe I shouldn't have fought him."
As a noted football coach once said preposterously, "hindsight is 50-50," but this might actually have been the case on the day the Penguins advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals. They clearly needed more than Max's unsuccessful one-rounder, so there's at least a 50 percent chance it had nothing to do with anything, but higher authorities seemed to agree that this 5-3 Penguins victory might not have come about otherwise.
"When you see what he tried to do, to lift our spirits, it's good when you can follow that up," said Sidney Crosby, who somehow managed to score two goals, generate about 12 good scoring chances, and win 20 of 33 faceoffs without earning a star. "You want good things to happen after something like that."
Even Dan Bylsma, who was spared a possible Game 7 with nearly as many ominous implications as the swine flu, didn't question the significance of this hockey game's one venture into boxing.
"I think Max Talbot really changed the momentum with that," Bylsma said. "Max just took it upon himself. Right after that, we got the goal."
Fedotenko's stuffer merely sliced the Flyers' lead to 3-1, but, when Mark Eaton scored less than two minutes later, any psychological edge the Flyers had established seemed to shift beneath their feet. Eaton came hard to the net on a 3-on-1 the Penguins generated out of Philadelphia's end. Tyler Kennedy shot the puck from the left-wing circle, and Eaton came right up Broad Street on Flyers goalie Martin Biron, slapping the rebound past him with a short baseball swing many a Pirate might envy.
"I was a center fielder [growing up nearby in Delaware], a singles hitter," Eaton laughed. "That was like a bunt down the third base line. I guess baseball came in handy today."
Crosby laughed, too, when asked if he always had suspected he has as good a baseball swing as Eaton, because Crosby's tying goal 10 minutes later came on a similar play. Crosby crashed the net from the wing opposite where Bill Guerin was carrying the puck, and, when Guerin flipped it at Biron, Crosby interrupted Biron's juggling act by swatting the puck behind him in much the same motion.
"I didn't expect to see [Eaton] there doing that, but we'll take 'em any way we can get 'em," said Crosby, who again silenced more than 20,000 tormentors with customary brilliance. "You've got to go to the net sometimes and you've got to score like that sometimes."
No one would have blamed the Penguins if they had come into Game 6 wondering if they would score again. Biron shut them out in Pittsburgh Thursday night, and though the first period yesterday was rife with scoring chances, they were down, 2-0, at the first intermission and 3-0 at the bell for the Talbot-Carcillo bout.
"Even when we were down, 2-0, 3-0, we kept playing the right way," said Bylsma, now the owner of his first playoff series victory. "They really tested us. In the playoffs, you're going to be challenged. We really got a good punch in the gut from them. They let us know how hard it was going to be."
It was awfully hard until Talbot punched back, and, even though he traded one for about six, he'll take that deal anytime it provides the kind of inspiration with which the Penguins dismissed the Flyers for the second consecutive spring.
Gene Collier can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1283.