A LOT OF truths tend to get told when game follows game follows game, every other night, for as long as the mathematics allow. Flaws are exposed and excellence is revealed, but it isn't that, not exactly.

Mostly, a best-of-seven series is where preconceptions go to die. In this one, gone now is the notion that the Pittsburgh Penguins are all about Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, that they are superstars driving a lightly populated bus.

This is so wrong.

The Penguins are a team, in every sense.

The Flyers probably knew it all along - and now that they are down by 3-0 in the Eastern Conference finals, they are not likely to forget. However and whenever it ends, tonight or thereafter, the Flyers and the people who follow them and the people who have watched the Penguins in this series, and all spring, have been left with an enduring impression of skill and teamwork coming at them in black-clad waves.

And defense. The Penguins' defense really is the story of this series - team defense, persistent defense, real strength and sureness with the puck. We can talk about Malkin and Crosby, and they do have scary skill. We can talk about their speed and their explosiveness because it is all very real.

But defense is winning these games. Commitment to a system, an entire team-wide mind-set, is what the Penguins are using to crush the Flyers.

"To be a winner, it's tough," said Michel Therrien, the Penguins coach. "It's demanding to be a winner. I believe right now we are starting to be recognized as winners."

Prohibitive favorites now against the Flyers, the Penguins practiced yesterday at the Wachovia Center and said all the stuff you're supposed to say when you are up 3-0 in a series. I mean, who would have guessed that the Flyers would be desperate tonight and that the fourth win was the toughest? I had never heard that one before.

The Penguins have been attending to every detail. Take this whole trap business. That the Penguins have been doing it, trapping in the neutral zone, in bigger and bigger stretches of games, is clear enough. It should not shock anybody because it remains a winning strategy, even in the new NHL.

It is just that, given the advance billing, given Crosby, given Malkin, given the rock-'em sock-'em robots nature of most of the Flyers-Penguins games this season, the delicate art of strangling the life out of your opponent did not seem as if it would be a featured part of the playbook. But here we are.

"If we give up one or two goals a game, we know we have a good chance to win," winger Petr Sykora said. "Even our scoring lines know that if we play good defense and get a lead, and make the other team come to us . . . we can feed off of turnovers."

It is exactly what is happening, and Sykora knows of what he speaks. He won a Cup with the New Jersey Devils, trapping to the limits, in 2000, and he reached the Stanley Cup finals another time with the Devils and another time with Anaheim. But for many of the rest, this is newish territory, something that Therrien has been trying to instill and install over the last 2 years.

"It takes time," Therrien said. "It doesn't come naturally, especially with skill players. But they buy into it. This is why they understand, and they play well defensively. They stick to the plan the way we try to play our system. Well, they're going to get rewards."

So far, the coach said, the players have bought in to the point where you have 20-year-old kids on the bench scolding their teammates when they freelance out of the confines of the defensive game plan.

To Therrien, "that is leadership, as far as I'm concerned." The result is this fine web in which the Flyers find themselves entangled.

As Crosby said, "I know that going into games, we know if we take care of our own end, hopefully, our skill will take care of itself. But . . . you have to believe in it, and you have to believe in what you do is going to work, and we do that.

"We have that belief, and I think that's the most important thing. There are some times where you can go out there and you know you're doing something right, but you're not sure if it's going to work, but that's not the case with us. We really believe in what we're going to do and we're going to have success in what we do."

You can tell. More than anything else in this Flyers-Penguins series so far, that team-wide defensive belief is the most obvious. *

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