Sloppy first period a killer

Nightmarish first period Penguins' demise

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PHILADELPHIA -- For Game 4 of the Eastern Conference final, the Penguins dusted off a dubious gambit from long ago and far away, from back before they weren't dominating these Stanley Cup playoffs, from back before they became the Lords of Discipline: The stupid penalty.

And don't forget the stupid penalty's troubled offspring: The additional, even stupider penalty.

Kris Letang got called for clipping last night.

Yes, clipping.

Funny, I thought I saw encroachment on that play. And I definitely saw lining up in the neutral zone. It was obvious.

But Letang wasn't in the box for clipping when Danny Briere gave the Flyers a 2-0 lead in the first period. Sergei Gonchar was off for holding when that happened. Brooks Orpik, standing in a post-whistle scrum behind the Penguins' net seven minutes later, misbehaved for no apparent purpose until he, too, was incarcerated, setting the stage for Jeff Carter's backhanded flip over Marc-Andre Fleury, the one that made it 3-0.

"We didn't deserve to win," Jarkko Ruutu said in the minutes after Philadelphia held with whitened knuckles to a 4-2 victory, not to mention playoff survival. "We just have to correct some things. We gave them those power play chances in the first. We gave them two short-handed breakaways.

"So yeah, we have a lot to correct."

At the end of that brief burst of first-period imprudence, the Penguins had surrendered, in 18 minutes, 50 seconds, fully 60 percent of the goals they'd allowed the Ottawa Senators in four games or the Flyers in three prior to last night.

On a night when Philadelphia only stopped banging Penguin bodies off the end boards long enough to capitalize on the wondrous opportunities the Penguins repeatedly afforded them, the outcome seemed fairly inevitable.

That Fleury somehow turned away eight superior scoring opportunities in the second period, keeping the deficit at three goals, seemed significant only in the shadow of historical arithmetic. The Flyers had been outscored, 18-11, in the third periods of these playoffs, and the Penguins had been absolutely slaying people after the second, outscoring their postseason opponents, 18-6, in the final 20 minutes and overtime.

When this same thing happened in New York two weeks ago, the Rangers were hopeful they'd planted a "seed of doubt," in the minds of the young Penguins, who dispatched them at the very next opportunity. The Flyers were rather noncommittal on the whole seed-planting aspect, but had there been any kind of seed presented in the Wachovia Center late last night, the Penguins would probably have just slashed it or roughed it or tripped it or clipped it.

"I don't think one loss is going to damage our confidence," said Orpik. "In the second and third period, they didn't get much. The first was the first really bad period we've had in a while."

The overriding theme as this series gets prepped to revisit our fair city on Sunday afternoon is pretty much that the overriding theme hasn't been altered much at all.

The Flyers will be just as desperate and out-manned at 3 o'clock Sunday as they were at 7:30 last night, and the Penguins will be just as confident that all that separates them from their first Stanley Cup Finals in 16 years is an immediate reboot to smart and fast defensive hockey.

They can't allow Mike Richards a short-handed breakaway, or any of the other 66 splendid scoring opportunities he misfired in Game 3, because he's not likely to miss again until 2013 after last night. They can't allow Carter and Briere to lurk near the goal mouth anymore, unless they're OK with spending the first part of next week back in the City of Unbrotherly Shoves.

You'd have to guess that that's not likely to be necessary, due in large part to the way the Penguins played last night's third period, swooping at the Philadelphia net, ringing thirtysomething shots against Martin Biron. The Flyers might have dominated two periods of this series, but they merely endured the third.

"We took over that game at the end," defenseman Hal Gill said of a third-period rally that chopped Philly's lead to one-goal before an empty-netter provided the complete statistical package. "We got off to a bad start, but we could have dictated that game. We were a little sloppy in the beginning and we let it slip away. When you give anybody that kind of lead, it's tough to get it back."


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


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