This was originally published on Sports Haze Pittsburgh:
Elton John visited CONSOL Energy Center last Tuesday, so none of the Flyers were in attendance when the rock legend belted out his vintage hit “Philadelphia Freedom.”
This season, though, Philadelphia has played with all the freedom of a flamboyant pop star in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ new hockey palace.
In the most significant game of the campaign for both teams, the first-place Flyers beat the second-place Penguins 5-2 Tuesday night to increase their Atlantic Division lead to four points. Philadelphia claimed all three games in Pittsburgh between the cross-state rivals.
With a regulation win, the Penguins (45-24-8, 98 points) would’ve tied the Flyers for first in the Atlantic and the Eastern Conference, but with Philadelphia extending its lead and still holding a game in hand on Pittsburgh, it appears the race is practically over. There are no more head-to-head matchups and the Flyers (46-20-10, 102 points) hold the relevant tiebreakers.
Even if the Penguins can somehow squeeze their way closer to the Flyers in the remaining two weeks before the playoffs, they will likely look back at a game that was well within their grasp midway through.
Alexei Kovalev scored on a 2-on-1 rush, his first goal in more than a month, to give Pittsburgh the first-period lead, but Jeff Carter tipped Braydon Coburn’s half-board shot off the post and in to tie it up after 20 minutes.
Nine minutes into the second Tyler Kennedy’s surprising burst through the neutral zone led to his career-best 19th of the season, and the Pens continued to press for a 3-1 lead after that. But after Kennedy and Chris Kunitz missed out on promising opportunities, the Flyers snatched the game right back.
An interference penalty to defenseman Paul Martin led to Scott Hartnell’s power-play goal, as he charged to the crease and jammed the puck past Marc-Andre Fleury at 13:45 to make it 2-2.
Less than a minute later, Pittsburgh’s Mark Letestu was stripped inside the Flyers’ blue line, and Claude Giroux buried a hard shot in transition, ringing it off the left pipe behind Fleury.
Kris Letang and Pascal Dupuis each had prime chances to draw the Pens even early in the third, but Flyers’ rookie goalie Sergei Bobrovsky turned them both away dramatically. The athletic Russian started his NHL career with a 3-2 win Oct. 7 on opening night in Pittsburgh.
Ville Leino added a pair of goals to close out the scoring, with both scores the result of strange bounces around the Pittsburgh crease. The first, at 5:30, caromed off Leino’s pants and in and the second, three minutes later, hopped over Fleury’s shoulder and barely crossed the goal line before Zybnek Michalek swept it out.
The Penguins had two late power plays to try to save some face, but despite looking dangerous for the first time in a while, failed to convert and finished the game 0-for-4. The usually tentative unit is now 3-for-59 in its last 18 games.
Give a Stick Tap To:
Kennedy is playing with more confidence than ever before, and his goal capped a world-class effort. He quickly controlled Brooks Oprik’s lead pass off the boards, accelerated around Flyers’ all-star defenseman Kimmo Timonen, and snapped the puck under Bobrovsky despite Timonen’s hook between his legs.
Not Good Enough:
The Penguins have not defended their new home very well against the better teams in the NHL. They are 4-10-1 at CONSOL vs. clubs currently in playoff position, including a troubling 0-11-1 against the Flyers, Caps, Bruins, Habs and Rangers, all from the Eastern Conference.
The second and final Florida trip of the season begins Thursday night in Tampa Bay. The match with the Lightning (40-24-11, 91 points) could very well provide a first-round playoff series preview, provided the Penguins stay in fourth position in the East and Tampa remains at No. 5.
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Matt Gajtka is a Featured Writer and Penguins Beat Reporter for Sports Haze Pittsburgh. He also hosts the Polish Prodigy Podcast, an audio exploration of sports and culture, on Blog Talk Radio (http://www.blogtalkradio.com/mattgajtka).