The battle for Pennsylvania took on a new edge Tuesday night, at the Wells Fargo Center, involving not only bragging rights, but also the top spot in the NHL. The Penguins showed up with the league’s best record, but left in second place after losing 3-2 to the home team.
This was game 32 for both teams, and it being only December, the two clubs considered it a good benchmark for where they might stand come playoff time. The top two teams in the league looked ready for a brawl. Pittsburgh is ranked 28 in the league in penalty minutes per game (16.4, a total of 508) and the Flyers are ranked 26 (15.8, a total of 491).
“It’s the battle of Pennsylvania,” Scott Hartnell said. “It was a big measuring game. It was intense and we played well enough to win.”
After all said and done, it was a game a defensive spoils and systems play. The high-flying Penguins on a 12 game winning streak and their captain, Sidney Crosby, on an 18 game point streak were held to only 23 shots on the night.
And if not for some penalties, they may have been shutout.
“You play a team that is undefeated, they’re in your building, in your division, one point ahead of you in the standings, you’re playing for first place overall,” Flyer coach Peter Laviolette said. “I don’t think it should be sold short.
“It was a big hockey game. We needed our guys to step up and be able to compete and play a hard-fought game against a very good hockey team and they did. And they got two points.”
The scoring started in the first period, when Penguins goalie, Marc-Andre Fleury lost his goal-stick retrieving the puck behind the net. Danny Briere found the puck and fed it out front for Claude Giroux to fire in. Giroux now has a point in five of the last six games.
For two of the top penalized teams in the league it took a while for the first minor to be called. The first came 29 seconds into the second period on Andreas Nodl, a stick infraction, which is a penalty the Flyers lead the league in. Once the penalties started, they didn’t stop.
The scariest came at 17:34, a goalie-interference call on Darroll Powe, with the narrowest one goal lead. But the penalty kill held strong for the win.
“It would have been nice if we would have buried one there to make it 4-2,” Flyers goalie Brian Boucher said. “Instead we take the penalty for drama points and make it a nail biter for the fans, but it was a great kill there at the end.”
Crafty winger Nikolai Zherdev scored the second goal, giving him 10 on the season, making him the fifth Flyer to reach double digits in that category. The Flyers also have six players with 20 or more points on the season, with captain Mike Richards leading the way with 30.
The game winner, a power play goal, was tipped in by Hartnell off of a shot by Chris Pronger, taking their power play to 1-for-6 on the night. It’s now 5-for-48 in the last 12 games. When scoring on the power play, the Flyers record is now 14-1-1, and when not scoring it is 6-6-4.
Crosby came into the game leading the league in goals(26) and points(51) and left with 2 assists, no shots, and a -1 on the night.
Evgeni Malkin, playing in his first game from knee surgery, had the best night, scoring two power-play goals, which put the visitors 2-for-4 while on the man advantage.
Laviolette is well known for playing the hot hand in goal, and again went to veteran netminder, Boucher, who now has his third straight start and third straight win. He gave up only two goals on 23 shots and has allowed only four in the last three games.
Also of note, Matt Walker (hip injury) and Ian Laperriere (post-concussion syndrome) have been place on LTIR. This gives the Flyers organization ample cap-space to activate goalie Michael Leighton. It does however mean they are playing up against the salary cap with the ability to receive a credit at the end of the season. It’s been said, they’ll move forward for the short-term with three goaltenders.