Work in Sports
Flyers' assets proving liabilities against faster Penguins
Posted: Sunday April 30, 2000 06:25 PM
PITTSBURGH (AP) -- This series was expected to be easy, painfully easy, for the Philadelphia Flyers, who supposedly had too much toughness, too much size, just plain too much for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
At least that's what everybody in Philadelphia was telling them.
Now, as they limp into Pittsburgh down 2-0 in an Eastern Conference semifinal series that has defied all forecasts, the Flyers must be wondering if the very assets expected to sway this series actually are liabilities.
Their size? It's of no help when the Penguins' faster, sleeker European skaters are flying by them, creating goals and turnovers and making the less mobile Flyers look like they're skating in slush.
Their toughness? The Penguins laughed at the Flyers when forward Rick Tocchet precipitated a brawl late in Pittsburgh's 4-1 victory in Game 2 Saturday that, rather than enhancing the Flyers' tough-guy image, only highlighted their frustration.
"This isn't about fighting, this is about winning hockey games," Penguins defenseman Darius Kasparaitis said. "I don't know what those guys are thinking. This is 2000, not 1960. I don't know what they're trying to prove, but they don't scare us."
The Flyers have stubbornly stuck with the same roster formula for years -- signing rugged, no-nonsense North American players who can muck and grind, dump and chase, agitate and frustrate -- with remarkable success.
But, so far in this series, they have been upstaged by the Penguins' stable of full-of-finesse European fly guys. Jaromir Jagr has three goals in two games, Robert Lang has two more, Martin Straka has a goal and seems to be assisting on every Penguins goal. Jan Hrdina is ably serving as Jagr's setup man.
So far, the series has been like a plodding, oversized Monster truck trying to outrace a well-tuned European sports car. And it's not just because the Penguins have more European players than any other team in a league that is quickly transitioning to Europeans for its scorers and its stars.
Then there's goaltender Ron Tugnutt, who, by stopping 72 of 73 shots, has been just as instrumental as Jagr in setting the tone for the series -- and, if the Penguins win it, setting the Flyers up for yet another huge playoff disappointment. They lost in the first round the last two seasons.
"We're still confident we can win Game 3 [Tuesday]," Flyers center Keith Primeau said. "We've just got to find a way to score. Who would have thought we would have a tougher time with Ronnie than we did with Dominik [Hasek of Buffalo]?"
Still, the Penguins are trying not to get too comfortable with a 2-0 lead that virtually no one predicted. They understand that one bad bounce, one goal off a skate blade could swing the momentum back to the Flyers, who still have two home games left if the series goes to seven games.
But the longer the Flyers go without beating Tugnutt more frequently, the closer they come to elimination. Tugnutt has the reputation of a goalie who can play well for long stretches when his confidence is up, and this series is growing shorter with each Penguins victory.
"We have to get to him, we have to get some goals, once we get some goals, guys will start feeling good about themselves and maybe we can break his confidence," Flyers goalie Brian Boucher said.
Another factor: The Flyers have come back to win only one playoff series they trailed 2-0, in 1977 against Toronto. The Penguins have blown only one 2-0 lead, in 1975 against the New York Islanders.
"But it's far from over," Penguins defenseman Bob Boughner said. "The last thing you want to do is mess up at home and give them life."
Especially since the Flyers are 3-14-5 in their last 22 games in Pittsburgh, despite a 1-0-1 record there this season.
"It's a pretty tough place to win," Boucher said. "But they came in here [Philadelphia] and won. This adversity is going to prove how close a group we really are."