IT ENDED with the puck dancing on the sticks of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, two of hockey's five most lethal scorers, for a full 67 seconds with a 6-on-4 advantage.
Pittsburgh's net was empty.
At the other end, Brian Boucher said the Flyers earned some "drama points" for making it a nail-biter as the NHL's top two horses closed on the finish line with the Flyers on the penalty kill in a neck-and-neck duel.
Last night, the Flyers hit the trifecta. Today, for at least 24 hours, they are the new king of the hockey world. With their hair-raising, 3-2 win over the Penguins at the Wells Fargo Center, the Flyers not only won the Battle of Pennsylvania for the third time in four tries this season, but also jumped over Pittsburgh for the top spot in the Atlantic Division, the Eastern Conference and the entire NHL.
Never mind that the Flyers halted the NHL's longest win streak since 2001 at 12 games.
"I don't think it should be sold short . . . It was a big hockey game for our guys," coach Peter Laviolette said. "But you can let your guard down for about 2 seconds. The work will continue. We're about to load the plane and go to Montreal [tonight], where they're sitting and waiting for us, probably licking their chops. They're waiting to get a piece of us."
Laviolette has talked to his players about putting themselves in a position to be in first place in the NHL all season. Last night, the Flyers didn't need any help from anyone.
It's hard to put a game in the middle of December in perspective, since the Flyers aren't even yet halfway through their grueling march that extends into April.
"It's as big a win as you can have in December," captain Mike Richards said. "You never know, these points could be big at the end of the year."
At the very least, last night was the Flyers' measuring stick to size up with not only one of the NHL's best but also to put last year's scratch-and-claw for points in a frame of reference. On this day last year, the Flyers were 15-16-1 and heading for 29th in the NHL. Exactly 365 days later, they are 28 spots higher at 20-7-5 and on pace for 114 points.
It is the earliest the Flyers have reached 20 wins since 1984.
"I think we learned an awful lot through the course of last year," Chris Pronger said. "The playoff run was a great learning experience for our guys in here. We've been able to carry that over to this year."
The Flyers did it last night by keeping the Penguins off the board at even strength. Almost all of the Penguins' scoring chances came with the extra attacker. Malkin scored both of his team's goals on power-play point shots.
Yes, Crosby skated past the vicious "Crosby Sucks" chants that rained from the 19,826 like a pylon and picked up a point for the 19th straight game, but it was just an assist. Crosby, still just 24, has a career-best 26 goals against the Flyers in 35 games.
"The only real chances they had were on the power play, and that's going to happen," said Boucher, who made 21 saves in his third straight start. "It's going to be tough to keep them in check on the power play. But we had a huge kill at the end. We took the penalty at the end for a few drama points."
Scott Hartnell's power-play goal, a redirection off a Pronger snap shot, with 9:54 remaining ended up being the difference. Overall, the Flyers held the lead for 35:47, and never trailed, against a team that spent just 28:53 trailing over the last 13 games. And they held it when it mattered most, when Laviolette said it was "helter-skelter," even though late-in-game penalties have been the Flyers' costly trademark.
"It's an awful trademark to have," Richards said.
But the Flyers' consistent track record in December has been a clean one.
"I think we've played really well for a long period of time," Laviolette said. "There are always games you wish you could've had back or done something different, but for the most part, I think our guys have been pretty consistent with what we are doing."
As Hartnell said, the Flyers don't want to be hot now, but "hot going into playoff time." Even if last night was just two points in game No. 32 of the season, one win of 20 so far, the Flyers were at least able to relish their triumph on their flight to Montreal late last night.
"It was a big test for us," Pronger said. "I don't think we can put too much into it. We've got to continue to look at the bigger picture. We've got a long way to go yet."
Less than 3 weeks remain for fans to vote for the starters in the NHL's All-Star Game, to be held in Raleigh, N.C., on Jan. 30. Chris Pronger was bumped out of a starting defensive spot when he was edged by Chicago's Duncan Keith by less than 5,000 votes. Kimmo Timonen is fifth among defensemen.
Sergei Bobrovsky, a write-in candidate, also fell back to third place among goaltenders, behind Pittsburgh's Marc-Andre Fleury and Montreal's Carey Price.
Three Flyers - Mike Richards (eighth), Claude Giroux (ninth) and Danny Briere (12th) - are in the top 15 in voting among forwards. With 175,008 votes, Giroux is fourth among all write-in candidates.
The Flyers outshot Pittsburgh, 37-23, despite being outshot 8-0 in the first 9:13 of the second period. In the final 30:47 of the game, the Flyers outshot the Penguins, 25-8 . . . Skating into Montreal tonight against the Northeast Division-leading Canadiens, the Flyers are 4-2-1 in the second game of back-to-back sets this season . . . With his first-period goal, Claude Giroux has points in five of his last six games . . . Nik Zherdev gave the Flyers a 2-1 lead in the second period with his 10th goal of the season on a brilliant top-shelf goal . . . Brian Boucher is now 5-0-1 in his last six starts with a 1.76 goals against-average and a .940 save percentage. Peter Laviolette has not yet named his starting goaltender for tonight.
For more news and analysis, read Frank Seravalli's blog, Frequent Flyers, at
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