Flyers put themselves in tough spot

Posted: April 22, 2009

And so the officials handed the Pittsburgh Penguins another playoff victory. This time, the dastardly zebras had the audacity to give the Flyers eight power-play opportunities.

It just wasn't fair. Not with Marc-Andre Fleury sliding back and forth in his crease like the goaltender in a bubble hockey game.

The Flyers had more men on the ice for nearly 13 of the 60 minutes in Game 4. They peppered Fleury with 16 of their staggering total of 46 shots on goal while on the power play. And they weren't able to score on any of their eight power plays. Not one.

"Their goalie won them that game, that's for sure," Flyers center Jeff Carter said.

But Fleury's stellar performance is not the reason the Flyers are on the brink of an early exit from this postseason. A hot goaltender is going to pop up and steal a game here and there in any playoff series. Fleury, who allowed five goals just 48 hours earlier in Game 3, gets credit for just one win.

"Now we've given ourselves zero margin for error," Flyers coach John Stevens said.

The reality is, his team had already accomplished that in three distinct ways before Fleury robbed them of a game they otherwise played well enough to win.

First, the Flyers blew home-ice advantage with two dreadful losses to the New York Rangers in their final regular-season games. Even an overtime loss in either of those games would have delivered the single point necessary for the Flyers to be hosting two of three remaining games in this series.

If winning three in a row against the Penguins is an order taller than Derian Hatcher standing on Hal Gill's shoulders, winning two of them in Pittsburgh borders on the impossible. That measly unearned point was the first falling domino in the Flyers' undoing.

The second was their appalling performance in Game 1. After last night's loss, the Flyers talked about "deserving a better fate" based on their performance. And there was some truth in that, even though goals are not awarded for high energy or creating good chances.

"At the end of the day, you only score one goal, it's going to be hard to win," Stevens said.

If the Flyers had played Game 1 the way they've played since, this whole series might be different. Handing Pittsburgh home ice and a one-game series lead was awfully generous.

And then there was Game 2, which the Flyers led by 2-1 in the third period. Carter had the puck in front of a wide-open net and shoved it along the ice, where Fleury was able to get a pad on it. Score there, take a 3-1 lead, and the Flyers probably come home tied. So there's the third way the Flyers left themselves with "zero margin for error" before Fleury turned in his inevitable nearly flawless game.

The Flyers were right not to whine about the Penguins' first goal last night. It was another of these plays on which every viewing of the replay leaves you less sure what happened. The only thing that's certain is it all started with a turnover at the Penguins' blue line by Kimmo Timonen just as one of those Flyers power plays ended.

Matt Cooke, fresh out of the penalty box, got the puck to Chris Kunitz in the left corner of the Flyers' zone. Kunitz fired it across the crease as Sidney Crosby rushed the net. Crosby slid like a baseball player coming into the plate. The puck appeared to hit the shaft of his stick, bounce into his body, and then pop in the air and into the back of the net.

Did Crosby interfere with Marty Biron? Did he carry the puck in? Did he slide under the catcher's tag? The goal was reviewed by the unseen hockeybots in the NHL Deathstar in Toronto. It was allowed to stand, but the review took long enough to tell you it was a tough one to figure.

"We didn't put the puck at our feet and throw ourselves in the net, which obviously is allowed now," Stevens said. "Other than that, I thought we played a good hockey game."

Stevens' frustration - his team took 46 shots and got one goal, by Dan Carcillo of all people, while the Penguins scored on Crosby's iffy play - was understandable. But the coach ultimately acknowledged that the lack of scoring was the primary reason for this loss. And the players, including Biron, stopped short of complaining about the call.

The players understood the truth. They competed in three of the four games in this series, won one and lost another in overtime. This is a series the Flyers could have won, and now will almost certainly lose.

"Maybe their goalie won't be so hot Thursday night," Timonen said.

If only the Flyers could get Fleury on some ice, they'd have a shot.


Contact columnist Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844 or psheridan@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/philsheridan. 

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