Marcus Hayes: Bear is on the loose in Pittsburgh

Sidney Crosby and the Penguins finally put together a complete game to stave off elimination and send the series back to their home ice.
Sidney Crosby and the Penguins finally put together a complete game to stave off elimination and send the series back to their home ice. (RON CORTES / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: April 20, 2012

SOMEBODY POKED the bear.

Somebody woke up the grizzly that is the Pittsburgh Penguins, and they finally focused the monstrous talent that had slumbered through the first three games - all Flyers wins; all gifts from an indulgent, petty team of pretty scorers.

Flyers goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, a Russian, aptly quipped on the eve of the quarterfinal series that, facing the fearsome Penguins attack, he feared nothing . . . except "the bear in the forest."

The bear was sleepwalking for 7 days, losing games, starting fights, getting suspended, losing three games.

Now, after a disciplined, 10-3 mauling in Game 4, the bear is wide awake.

The Penguins skated circles around the Flyers, induced eight avoidable penalties in the first 28 minutes and knocked Bryzgalov out of the game after five goals on 18 shots in 23 minutes of play.

It probably will not happen. The Flyers are good enough to beat any iteration of the Penguins once in three tries; even this suddenly professional version.

But make no mistake: The Pens are more than capable of doing to the Flyers what the Flyers did to the Bruins just 2 years ago, when the Flyers erased a 3-0 series lead and won the series.

It has been done just two other times in the NHL, and just once more in all of major league sports, by the Red Sox in 2004.

Sure, the circumstances are different.

The Bruins already were depleted, and Mike Richards dealt Boston the death blow when he broke David Krejci's wrist.

The Flyers, meanwhile, aren't beat up, save for top defenseman Niklas Grossmann, who has the sort of upper-body injury that happens when a head hits glass.

That hurts.

That might not matter, even if Grossmann does play.

These Penguins possess overwhelming firepower, unlike the Flyers of two seasons ago. That Flyers team was talented, but its hustle and heart and clutch play (plus their avoidance of Pittsburgh and Washington) took them past Boston and to the Stanley Cup finals.

If the Penguins play with half of the hustle of the Flyers from 2010, the Flyers need to play their absolute best to avoid more laugher losses.

Before Wednesday, the Penguins played heartless, sloppy hockey. After an early penalty on Evgeni Malkin in Game 4, they found their heart and they tightened things up. And they were scary good.

One Russian brought the bear into the conversation, and the alarm appeared to go off when Malkin, another Russian, took a typically cheap penalty. Before the game, officials warned both sides to cease the Slapstick shenanigans that turned Game 3 into a joke.

Initially, the Penguins ignored that edict. After a faceoff, Malkin attempted exploratory surgery on Sean Couturier's crotch. The hooking penalty gave the Flyers their second power play in the first 90 seconds.

Malkin emerged from the box no longer a cruising, chippy superstar, but a hungry, angry bear. He immediately tied the game, his first goal of the series, and set the Penguins on the path they should have been traveling all along.

"The Penguins learned very quickly," said Flyers sage Jaromir Jagr.

The Penguins weren't rattled in the first three games. They were just cocky. Overconfident. Distracted.

Put that at the feet of coach Dan Bylsma, who, in the first three games, neither controlled his players nor inspired them; and classless star Sidney Crosby, who, for a week was more intent on growling tough than on playing well. The bears run this zoo.

The Penguins remain a punkish group of cheap-shotters and whiners who surround their Golden Boy with a cast of wizardly scorers and bloodthirsty protectors.

But, despite their character flaws, they are terrifyingly talented, with a real chance to make the sort if history the Flyers last made. And the Flyers know it, back to front.

Bryzgalov might be better than his 4.95 goals-against average, but not much. His syrupy-slow play might be a result of the lingering chip fracture in his right foot - he won't say it isn't because of the foot - but, either way, he has been pretty bad.

Bryzgalov left the ice after just 12 minutes of practice yesterday. He did not talk to the press. He generally is honest when he does deign to speak, and, on Wednesday, he recognized the blowout for what it was: an accurate gauge of the teams' capabilities.

"We did not play loose. They forced us to make the mistakes," Bryzgalov said. "Give them good credit."

On the other end, Pens goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, perhaps the worst player in the first 10 periods of the series, righted himself Wednesday. All three Flyers goals came on power plays in the first 16 minutes of the game.

Fast-forward to Fleury's glove save in the third period on Braydon Coburn's backhand, one of about a dozen saves indicating that Fleury, too, has rolled out of bed and shaken his fur.

"The whole game was kind of a blur. Everything happened so quick," said Giroux, whose sense of the evening was exactly opposite of anyone who was watching the game and not playing in it.

With the Penguins having discovered that, if they play a clean, crisp brand of hockey for 60 minutes, they can run away with game, tonight's game could be over even quicker.

And the next. And the next.

And the Flyers know it.

"We can't start this game one- or two-nothing," said Scott Hartnell. "We tried to press for goals last game, and they just buried us."

"We have to be very careful," Jagr agreed, "especially in the first period."

They then have to be disciplined throughout.

Laviolette said of the breathtaking second period in Game 4, "We gave them 13 minutes of power play time."

Or, the Penguins took it.

"They skated better than we did, and we took the penalties," Jagr said.

Hartnell said yesterday he was embarrassed to be part of such an uninspiring effort. Not Jagr.

"I don't want to use the word embarrassed,' " Jagr said Wednesday.

The Flyers should not be embarrassed for their Game 4 effort, any more than a bear should be ashamed for where he does his business.

Neither can be helped.


Contact Marcus Hayes at hayesm@phillynews.com

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