PITTSBURGH - John Stevens wears dark suits and dull ties, but when he thinks hockey, he thinks high def.
Trying to get R.J. Umberger to see the ice better a few years ago, he introduced him to a series of innovative concentration exercises originally designed for children with Attention Deficit Disorder. Umberger's career took off.
Yesterday, receiving a compliment about his team's defensive stick work in the Flyers' 3-1 victory over the Penguins, the coach smiled and said, "Believe it or not, I actually put a tire on a guy's stick the other day so he would keep it on the ice."
"I won't say who it was," he said. "But he kind of looked at me like, 'C'mon now.' "
A refreshing part of Stevens as a coach is that he is willing to think outside the box, willing to look through a prism not used before. Stevens went on to say he has taped a guy's hand to his stick, "Just so he couldn't grab his stick and it had to be on the ice."
The point, the purpose, of course, is to clog up passing zones, to avoid the pretty play that so often ends up with the puck inside of your own net.
For 50 minutes of yesterday's nationally televised matinee at the Mellon Arena, the Flyers did that spectacularly, allowing their goaltender's continued brilliance to push them past the Penguins and back ahead of them in the standings - and with three games at hand. Over the weekend, the Flyers collected four points from teams chasing them in the playoff hunt, solidifying their hold on the fourth slot of the Eastern Conference and home-ice advantage in the first round.
Martin Biron was the primary story here. He stopped 27 of 28 shots, diving across the crease to rob Sidney Crosby in the second period, stoning Jordan Staal point blank in the slot late in the third after the Penguins had pulled within a goal at 2-1.
"I didn't see who was going to shoot it," Biron said. "But I knew it was going to be a lefty. And I was able to kick a leg out. It's as good a look as you're going to get at the end of the game."
But the stats - which did not credit Crosby for that shot - lie just a little. He and Evgeni Malkin did not put a puck on net all game.
"They still had a lot of opportunities though," said Flyers captain Mike Richards, who drew the Malkin assignment much of the time. "That's the type of players they are. They still draw all the attention. Make good plays to get other players involved."
One of those plays led to Pittsburgh's lone goal with 9 minutes, 58 seconds to play in regulation. In the waning seconds of a power play defended well by the Flyers, Crosby spun Kimmo Timonen in the corner along the boards, walked in on net and slid a pass to defenseman Kristopher Letang who pushed it off Biron's pad and into the net.
The other assist? Malkin, of course.
But that's as close as anyone can expect to keep those two unproductive for 60 minutes. And with due credit to Biron and the exhaustive work of Richards, Jeff Carter and defenseman Ryan Parent, busy sticks in their own zone and the neutral zone had Pittsburgh constantly resetting their attack.
"We know that Pittsburgh is not a team that likes to shoot a lot," Biron said. "We know they like to make the best of their opportunities. We read all of that. You look at the backcheck that Scott Hartnell did in the first period. That was just the way the guys were going to play defense."
Hartnell's come-from-behind stick check denied Petr Sykora a clear shot in the slot. Most of what the Flyers did, though, was tip passes just enough to misdirect the puck, put it on its edge, make it tough to complete plays.
And they made just enough of their own. Simon Gagne's power-play goal at 5:19 of the first period got them started. Hartnell made it 2-0 on an early power play in the second period and Darroll Powe finished the Flyers' scoring after Hartnell missed an empty net in the waning seconds.
Appropriately, Gagne's goal came after Penguins defenseman Rob Scuderi's clearing attempt hit him on his lowered stick.
Ironically, Hartnell had his stick on the ice for the second goal, but the puck hit his skate instead and went in.
Ah, better to be lucky than good, and both together are a nice recipe, too.
"I think when we've played well and defended well this year we've had good sticks," said Stevens. "We've talked a lot about that lately and I think our guys were great with it today."
Those sticks on the ice don't always deflect away trouble, and the Flyers sometimes made the game more interesting than it needed to be with soft clears. But in the end the tire on the stick did the trick, which means the boys can expect more of this kind of stuff in the future from their button-down, high-def coach. *