Cullen: Flyers, Kings take commanding series leads

Scott Cullen
4/16/2012 2:20:01 AM
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Sunday brought a crazy game in the City of Brotherly Love, the Kings have the Canucks on the ropes, the Predators made the most of their chances and the Panthers have a playoff victory.

Scott Cullen looks at another eventful day in the NHL playoffs.

Amidst the chaos in Philadelphia Sunday afternoon, the Flyers emerged with an 8-4 win, taking a commanding 3-0 lead in their series with the Pittsburgh Penguins. The two teams combined for 158 penalty minutes and more than a few questionable altercations.

On the scoreboard, Danny Briere paced the Flyers' attack with three more points, giving him 98 points in 94 playoff games since the lockout. Briere struggled during the 2011-2012 regular season; his 0.70 points per game was his lowest since 2000-2001 when he was playing under 11 minutes per game for Phoenix. By lifting his game in the playoffs once again, Briere gives the Flyers a strong second scoring line and they've proven to be too much for the Penguins.

Flyers RW Jaromir Jagr, another veteran that has scored better than a point per game in the playoffs throughout his career (including 140 playoff games for the Penguins from 1991 through 2001), notched three assists in just 11:49 of ice time.

While G Ilya Bryzgalov has been up an down in the Flyers' net, Penguins G Marc-Andre Fleury has been a disaster for Pittsburgh. Fleury is surely not to blame for every goal against, but when a goaltender has a 6.34 goals against average and a .798 save percentage in the first three games of a playoff series, he is a long way from being absolved of responsibility.

Penguins RW James Neal had an eventful day, scoring a couple of goals, including a highlight reel dangle to cut the deficit to 3-2, and added an assist to go with  10 shots on goal.

However, Neal also left a lasting impression by his antics late in the game, taking runs at Philadelphia's Jakub Voracek, which earned a charging minor, as well as Sean Couturier and Claude Giroux, neither of which was penalized. Neal may have been agitated by taking a knee from Flyers D Nicklas Grossmann earlier in the game, or it may have just been a result of general frustration or some combination thereof but, on a day that the NHL suspended two players, Neal's behaviour certainly had the hallmarks of suspendable behaviour.

There were several unusual run-ins throughout the game. Defencemen Kris Letang and Kimmo Timonen, the best blueliners on each team, were kicked out 12 minutes into the game for fighting while an altercation between Sidney Crosby and Claude Giroux was already taking place (more on Crosby later). Given the Penguins' situation, it was not the smartest decision by Letang to do anything that would get him ejected.

Penguins tough-guy RW Arron Asham earned a match penalty for crosschecking Flyers rookie Brayden Schenn in the face because Schenn had the audacity to deliver a clean hit to Penguins D Paul Martin along the boards. Asham, as a fourth-liner, would seem to be a logical target for supplemental discipline.

Penguins winger Craig Adams also faces a possible suspension for getting an instigator penalty in the final five minutes. Crosby was entangled with Flyers LW Scott Hartnell and when matters escalated, Adams jumped in.

Which brings us, inevitably, to...

Frustration built quickly for Sidney Crosby. Already down two games to none and losing from the midway point of the first period in Game Three, Crosby was more inclined to rage (rage!) against the dying of the light, rather than going gently into the good night.

Crosby had one assist was minus-2, fought Giroux and had other altercations with Brayden Schenn and Scott Hartnell (among others).

Crosby's fight with Giroux came under criticism in some corners because it was two guys that had missed time with concussions this year. This is where my view would be different than those that think Crosby should just avoid these confrontations, to play a safer, reserved game and I write this having been accused, for years, of being biased against Crosby because I don't automatically rank him at the top of my NHL Player Rankings week after week, year after year.

For all the columnists and commentators that want Crosby to change the way he plays the game, that misses the point of why he has been such an exceptional player to this point in his career. Crosby is a great player precisely because he is hyper-competitive and sticks his nose in the middle the of the action.

It doesn't mean he can't be smart about when to engage, but when he's jawing with the Flyers' best player and they end up tangling, Crosby doesn't need to avoid that. If he's going to keep playing in the NHL and behaves in a way that an opponent finds contentious (yes, it happens), then it can't be treated like a national disaster if he is willing to stick up for himself in the heat of the moment.

It's easy enough for him to brush off Zac Rinaldo or have a teammate jump in when he's tangling with Scott Hartnell, but when it's nose-to-nose and toes-to-toes with Giroux, Crosby either backs it up or he gives the Flyers ammo because then they know they can intimidate him.

The Flyers must already feel like they can get Crosby off his game, and that's understandable given how the Penguins melted down Sunday but, if Crosby is playing, he can't respond differently in his post-concussion game, because there is no mercy forthcoming from the opposition. If, for example, Crosby backs off from Giroux, in that heated environment, it's a backward step that a player like Crosby wouldn't be inclined to take any time, let alone in the midst of a playoff series against a hated rival.

In my view, if Sidney Crosby (or any player) lets genuine emotion cloud their judgment from time to time, it's to be appreciated, not condemned.

The beauty of NHL playoff hockey is that the players play at an emotional pitch that is so much higher than the regular season and that means higher highs and lower lows. With the Penguins on the brink of elimination, Crosby is undoubtedly feeling awfully low right now.

The Los Angeles Kings didn't register a shot on goal in the first 12 minutes of their game against the Vancouver Canucks, and were outshot 41-20 overall, yet they managed to escape with a 1-0 win in Game Three, taking a 3-0 lead in the series.

Kings G Jonathan Quick, a likely Vezina finalist, has stopped 87 Canucks shots in the last two games and he was the difference in this game. Canucks G Cory Schneider stopped 19 of 20 shots, but Kings captain Dustin Brown pounced on a rebound 6:30 into the third period and that would be the game's only goal.

Brown had already made his presence felt in the game, leading the Kings with six shots on goal and flattening Vancouver's Henrik Sedin in front of the Canucks' bench with a bone-rattling hit. In the ensuing melee, Alex Burrows ended up scrapping with the Kings' Anze Kopitar; incidentally, Kopitar's first NHL fight (according to www.hockeyfights.com). In addition to his fight, Burrows led the Canucks with eight shots on goal.

Like Pittsburgh, Vancouver was considered a favourite to get to the Stanley Cup final, so the fact that both teams are facing daunting 3-0 deficits is very surprising, but both are running into problems that aren't entirely without evidence.

In the Penguins' case, they need Marc-Andre Fleury to provide good goaltending, while the Canucks are having trouble scoring goals and while some of that is obviously attributed to Quick's play, it's also a reflection of a Vancouver lineup that is missing Daniel Sedin (still out with a ocncussion) and traded away Cody Hodgson's 16 goals at the trade deadline, leaving fewer finishers than the club had through the first three-quarters of the season.

The Detroit Red Wings outshot the Nashville Predators 43-22 on Sunday afternoon, but ended up on the wrong side of a 3-2 score. Such is the razor-thin margin between winning and losing in the NHL playoffs, especially in a series as close as this, that the Red Wings' fate for Game Three could have been determined by a goal that wasn't at the end of the second period.

It was entirely correct for officials to rule that Johan Franzen's shot at the end of the second period didn't cross the goalline before the clock hit 0:00, because that was the only conclusion to be drawn, but missing by that fraction of a second is really more than either team can afford and it turned out that the Red Wings couldn't close the gap in the third period.

Predators D Kevin Klein was an unexpected star in the game, scoring a highlight-reel goal, adding an assist and a crucial blocked shot to save a goal. While offensive expectations are modest for Klein -- he scored a career-high 21 points this season -- it's worth noting that he had seven points in the last 13 games he played in the regular season.

Based on how effective he was jumping into the rush to score Nashville's second goal, maybe there is a chance that Klein can provide more offence.

With the Wings pressing -- they outshot Nashville 19-4 in the third period -- Predators LW Sergei Kostitsyn scored on a 2-on-1 rush to give Nashville a 3-1 lead. Kostitsyn has been an extremely high-percentage finisher since arriving in Nashville, scoring 40 goals on 190 shots (21.1%) over the last two regular seasons, the highest mark among any player with at least 100 games played or 25 goals scored.

At the other end of the shooting spectrum, Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg scored in the final minute, getting the Red Wings back to within one. Zetterberg, who had nine shots on goal in Game Three, stands on contrast to Kostitsyn because, in the last three seasons, Zetterberg has 69 goals on 882 shots (7.8%), which ranks lowest in the league among all forwards with at least 50 goals over those three seasons.

But Zetterberg's late goal or Pavel Datsyuk's two-point game notwithstanding, the Red Wings couldn't take the series lead against Nashville, so now they're left with the challenge of taking Game Four so that they aren't heading back to Nashville down three games to one.

Long-serving Panthers captain Stephen Weiss scored a pair of power play goals to get the Panthers a lead and, even though the Devils made it close with a couple of early third-period goals, they couldn't come all the way back and Florida won their first playoff game in nearly 15 years.

Veteran winger Mikael Samuelsson added another assist, giving him three points in two games. The proven playoff performer has worked well on the Panthers' second line with Marcel Goc (who had a goal and an assist Sunday) and Sean Bergenheim (who added an assist).

Devils C Travis Zajac, who switched to a line with Alexei Ponikarovsky and David Clarkson in the third period, scored the Devils' first goal and was 13-4 on draws. Adam Henrique moved back between Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise on New Jersey's number one line.

The Panthers had a physical pairing on the blueline as veteran Ed Jovanovski and rookie Erik Gudbranson combined for 13 hits. They played primarily against Ponikarovsky, Henrique and Clarkson (per www.timeonice.com).

For the record, both teams combined for a total of seven shots on goal in the first period.

The win is certainly a feel-good moment for the Panthers but, after being thoroughly dominated in the first period of Game One, they've held their own with the Devils in the five periods since, which may provide some reason for hope as they head to New Jersey for Game Three.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.

Giroux and Crosby (Photo:  Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)


(Photo: Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)
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