Flyers on brink of elimination

May 13, 2008 8:52:04 PM PDT
Ryan Whitney's wide smile told several stories. He and the Pittsburgh Penguins are one win away from the Stanley Cup finals, and the path was paved by his goal that was three months in the making. Quick strikes by Whitney and Marian Hossa raised the Penguins to heights not reached since Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr donned the black and gold.

Whitney and Hossa scored less than 3 minutes apart in the first period, and the Penguins held the Philadelphia Flyers to 18 shots Tuesday night in a 4-1 victory that gave Pittsburgh a 3-0 lead in the Eastern Conference finals.

"This might have been our best defensive effort all year," Whitney said.

Another win against their cross-state rivals, and the Penguins will advance to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since Lemieux and Jagr led Pittsburgh to titles in 1991 and 92.

"We're five wins away from our goal, but this next game is so important," said Whitney, who scored for the first time in 30 games. "They're playing for their season."

R.J. Umberger, born in Pittsburgh, answered with a first-period goal for the Flyers, but the Pittsburgh defense then locked them down. That made things easier for Marc-Andre Fleury, who finished with 17 saves after a pair of 4-2 home victories.

Ryan Malone scored with 10:02 left to make it 3-1 and silenced a crowd hoping to see Philadelphia get back in it. Instead, the Flyers can be eliminated as soon as Thursday. Hossa added an empty-net goal with 53.7 seconds remaining.

Pittsburgh, which recorded 25 shots, is 11-1 in these playoffs and has led 3-0 in all three series. Detroit holds the same advantage over Dallas in the West finals, and can advance with a win Wednesday.

"I don't think any of us saw this coming, we're going to be honest," Whitney said. "We thought it would be battles against all three teams, but this series is far from over."

The Penguins, who lost all four regular-season games in Philadelphia, are the first team since the 1983 Edmonton Oilers and the fourth overall to win 11 of their first 12 in the playoffs.

"I don't know if we look at it as an accomplishment," captain Sidney Crosby said. "We're being consistent right now. We have a great attitude, but that's the reward you get for making sure that you take each game seriously."

History is on their side, too. Only the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs and the 1975 New York Islanders have erased 3-0 deficits and won series.

"It's pretty simple, we cannot lose again," forward Joffrey Lupul said. "We are not going to quit. We are going to come out in Game 4 and play as hard as we can."

The excitement and enthusiasm from the "Flyer-ed Up," orange-clad fans was dampened by Whitney's power-play goal 5:03 in, then extinguished when Hossa made it 2-0 2:38 later.

It was reminiscent of how Pittsburgh took out the Madison Square Garden crowd 1:02 into Game 3 of the second round when Hossa scored against the New York Rangers.

"It felt a lot like that," Whitney said.

The loudest noises that rained down at Wachovia Center came in the form of groans, first when Evgeni Malkin drew a questionable hooking call against Flyers defenseman Derian Hatcher with a dive in the offensive zone, then when Whitney cashed in the Penguins' third power-play goal of the series.

Hossa needed no help to further frustrate the Flyers. He stick-handled around Jeff Carter near the blue line, and sent a shot between the legs of Philadelphia defenseman Lasse Kukkonen, who screened Martin Biron as the puck sailed by at 7:41.

The goals came on the Penguins' second and fourth shots.

While Crosby and Malkin and the rest of the Penguins passed the puck around as if they had it on a string, the Flyers struggled to generate offense. Given three power-play chances, of various lengths and manpower-advantages, in the first period, Philadelphia couldn't muster a shot.

"Give them credit. They're playing very well defensively and it seems that we're reluctant to get the puck in deep and try to get by them," forward Mike Richards said.

Philadelphia's power play, the NHL's second-best in the regular season, continued to struggle. The loss of top defense pairing Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn has proved costly. Timonen is likely out for the playoffs due to a blood clot in his foot, and Coburn missed his first game after being struck in the face by a puck Sunday.

The Flyers cut the deficit in half on Umberger's 10th of the playoffs. The play was started by top-line forwards Danny Briere and Vinny Prospal, who were held without a point in the first two games. Prospal swooped behind the net and banked a shot off the right post. Umberger softly swept the rebound past Fleury with 9:01 left in the first.

In the next 29 minutes, the Flyers generated only three shots. They went into the third trailing 17-8 on the shot clock, but behind by only a goal.

Philadelphia's best scoring chance in the second came when Richards got free after a turnover 9 minutes in and was tripped up by charging defenseman Sergei Gonchar, who knocked away the puck.

With the score 2-1 and under 14 minutes remaining, Flyers forward Scott Hartnell hit the left post.

Notes: Pittsburgh is 9-0 in the playoffs when scoring first. ... The Flyers' low shot total for a playoff game was 13 on May 24, 2000, against New Jersey in the East finals. ... Coburn could return once the swelling in his face subsides. ... Penguins LW Gary Roberts sat out due to illness. He was replaced by Adam Hall. ... Crosby had a pair of assists. ... The last time there were sweeps in the conference finals was 1992 when Pittsburgh and Chicago did it.