By Dan Scifo
From the Point Contributor
PITTSBURGH – Even in the midst of an intense, heated playoff race, the Philadelphia Flyers are playing carefree, relaxed hockey and having fun at the expense of their hated cross-state rivals.
Wayne Simmonds scored two power-play goals, Matt Read scored his second short-handed goal in as many days and Brayden Schenn also found the back of the net as the Flyers finished the back end of a home-and-home sweep against the Pittsburgh Penguins, 4-3, Sunday at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh.
“I just think we play our best hockey against them, it seems like,” Simmonds said. “We have a huge rivalry against Pittsburgh and they’re one of the better teams in the league.”
Philadelphia, which blasted Pittsburgh 4-0 a day earlier, jumped out to an early 3-0 lead thanks to Schenn’s 17th of the year and Simmonds’ 20th and 21st of the season. The Flyers, who are 5-1-1 in their last seven and 10-2-1 lifetime at Consol Energy Center, needed Read’s 19th of the season – a short-handed goal – to fend off the hard-charging Penguins, who twice cut the deficit to one goal, and nearly tied it in the final seconds when Sidney Crosby’s backhand attempt hit the post.
“I know the boys in the locker room love playing against them,” said goaltender Steve Mason, who made 20 saves. “Whether we’re in their head or not, we don’t really care. We get amped up to play against them and it’s a fun game to be a part of.”
Matt Niskanen scored his 10th of the season, recent call-up Jayson Megna netted his fifth, and Brooks Orpik his second of the season for the injury-depleted Penguins, who received good news after the game when head coach Dan Bylsma announced defenseman Kris Letang and forward Beau Bennett would return to practice on Monday.
Letang, whose most recent game was Jan. 27 against Buffalo, suffered a stroke six weeks ago during the team’s West coast trip prior to the Olympic break.
“We had an idea that he could possibly be cleared to practice,” Bylsma said. “He has some other things to go through, but we knew this was the six-week mark and there was a chance.
“He’s been working out, he’s been skating and doing quite a bit on his own, so it’s not a complete surprise.”
It’s a bit of good news for the short-handed Penguins, who are experiencing struggles despite holding a 15-point lead in the Metropolitan Division.
The Penguins, three points behind red-hot Boston for the top spot in the Eastern Conference, were without high-scoring wingers Chris Kunitz (lower body) and James Neal (concussion) for the second consecutive game, joining Pascal Dupuis (knee) in addition to Letang (stroke) and defenseman Paul Martin, out with a broken hand. Neal and Kunitz have combined for 53 goals and 108 points, resulting in a gaping hole left to be filled on the top two lines.
The Penguins refuse to use the rash of injuries as an excuse.
“There has not been a point at any time this season we’ve looked at injuries or the loss of a player as any indication of what we’re doing,” Bylsma said. “We feel totally capable with the guys we inserted in the lineup.”
The opener of the home-and-home series was a one-sided affair as Philadelphia posted a dominating 4-0 victory thanks to Read’s two goals and 25 saves from Mason. Scott Hartnell and Vincent Lecavalier also scored for the Flyers in that game.
Philadelphia, with 17 games in 30 days, is in the middle of a tightly-contested bunched pack of teams vying for a playoff spot. The Flyers played their second of 12 consecutive games against teams that currently hold a playoff spot.
“It’s not easy to get four points out of this weekend,” Flyers’ defenseman Kimmo Timonen said. “The way we’ve been playing, we’re hard to play against and we’re going to win a lot of games.
“This weekend shows we can play with anyone.”
Philadelphia scored three first-period goals in less than 14 minutes – including two from Simmonds on the power play – to race out to an early 3-0 lead. The Flyers chased starter Marc-Andre Fleury, who allowed three goals on 15 shots.
“With them getting three in the first on (Fleury), it could’ve been five,” Crosby said. “That’s not his fault by any means. We didn’t want to give them any momentum and we took three penalties in the first period.”
The first goal, scored by Brayden Schenn, came just 2:06 into the contest, while Simmonds’ netted his power-play goals at 6:47 and 13:41 of the first period.
“We play Pittsburgh a ton of games a year and our power play has been successful against them since I’ve been here,” Simmonds said. “I think we kind of know where they’re going to come from.
“I don’t want to say we pick them apart, but we know where they’re going to come from and we try to change our point of attack and it seems to be working.”
Orpik gave the Penguins life late in the first period with his first goal since Oct. 12 and Niskanen pulled his team within on, 3-2, at 14:10 of the second, both scoring on shots from the point.
“We had better compete today,” Niskanen said. “It’s tough when you get behind the eight-ball like that, but we got some momentum, clawed our way back and made it a hockey game”
Read pushed the Flyers’ advantage back to two goals at 4-2, snapping a short-handed goal over backup Jeff Zatkoff’s shoulder at 7:49 of the period. Megna’s late second-period goal, a one-timer from Brian Gibbons, cut into the Flyers lead, making it 4-3 heading into the third, but it wasn’t enough.
“What matters now is the process of getting ready,” Niskanen said. “The last two seasons March has been too easy for us. We go through with a breeze and I think we go into the playoffs overconfident.
“Right now we’re at a bump in the road and we’re going to have to fight for it. If we handle it the right way, it’s going to teach us how hard it’s going to be. We have to get better before mid-April comes.”
NOTES: The Flyers have a power-play goal in nine straight road games against the Penguins, the longest streak in their history… Crosby was held without a point in consecutive games against the Flyers for the second time in his career… Pittsburgh hasn’t lost three straight against the Flyers since the 2007-08 season…The Penguins lost back-to-back regulation games for the first time since November… Claude Giroux had two assists, giving him four goals and 12 points in seven games. He also has eight goals and 24 points in his last 13 games against the Penguins.