VILLE LEINO was getting frustrated.
For the first two periods of last night's game, Leino made Nashville's defensemen miss like a mime - leaving them dancing with nothing but air as they went to throw a body check just inside their zone.
But Leino could never get close enough to Predators goaltender Anders Lindback for a solid scoring chance.
"I think you saw in the first two periods that it wasn't working [for him]," Chris Pronger said. "For guys like that, all it takes is a little time and space, and they can do great things."
Leino got that time and space in the third period, and scored two goals less than 10 minutes apart as the Flyers grinded out a 3-2 win over the visiting Predators, who entered the night in fourth place in the Western Conference.
With the win, the Flyers not only bounced back from their hideous, 4-0 loss in Tampa Bay on Tuesday night, they also increased their lead in the Atlantic Division to three points over idle Pittsburgh. This season's Flyers (34-13-5) are now tied with the 1973-74 and 1974-75 Stanley Cup-winning teams for the third-best record in franchise history after 52 games.
Believe it or not, last night's was Leino's first two-goal, regular-season game in his NHL career.
His game-winning goal, with just 3:14 remaining, came after warding off a Nashville defender with a spin-a-rama before blasting a backhand just over Lindback's shoulder.
"We watch him in practice every day, and that's what he practices, those little tight turns," forward Blair Betts said. "He's really strong on his skates, and he's really strong on his stick. Not too many people can pull that off."
Confidence to pull off those moves, Leino said, is usually the difference between a strong game and a weak one - and it's something that can change on a nightly basis, from game-to-game. Leino never lost confidence last night, not even when he failed to finish in the first two periods.
"I feel like my self-confidence hadn't been there and my work hadn't been as hard as I wanted it to be," he said. "Confidence is all my game. I haven't been feeling that good lately, but I knew I wanted to go [hard] right away from the start."
Coach Peter Laviolette sensed that Leino's confidence was high - and even threw him out for a double shift in the third with Jeff Carter and Claude Giroux, which produced the winner.
"It seemed visible tonight that he was skating well, skating hard and his strides were good," Laviolette said. "When he's doing his thing, it's tough to get the puck back from him. He's a dangerous player when he plays at that style and speed."
Leino's instincts in tight spaces are second to none.
Use of the backhand - popular when early wooden sticks weren't curved, to give players an edge from both sides - has been a lost art in today's NHL. Last night, Leino knew he had no choice but to surprise Lindback with it.
"That was all instinct," Leino said. "He was on my right side, so I knew there was empty space there. As soon as I turned, I knew I had to get it up [high]. It worked out pretty well."
Some of those instincts, Carter said, can't be taught. Leino is unlike many NHLers, in that he is willing to hang on to the puck through and around traffic to find the best opportunity. Too many players are so worried about a turnover, they end up creating one by getting rid of the puck too quickly.
"I think that's tough to teach," Carter said after picking up three points. "There's not too many guys that have the patience and the skill that he does with the puck. I wish I had it."
Leino scored earlier in the third period to give the Flyers a 2-1 lead on the power play, but Joel Ward responded a little more than 3 minutes later to even the score for the hungry Predators. The Flyers found themselves in a dogfight with a team most comfortable in one-goal games.
"They're a good defensive team," said Betts, who led the Flyers with four scoring chances in the second period alone. "They are a hardworking team. It took a power-play goal and a great individual effort to seal it off."
"When we had the lead, I don't think we gave them too many chances," Mike Richards said. "It's good to see that, in a tied game going into the third period, we can close it out."
Last night, the Flyers passed the test against a playoff team whose style couldn't be more opposite than their own. And that can't be overlooked.
"I think we've shown the resilience and the wherewithal to continue to push the pace of the game," Pronger said. "I don't know if we played rope-a-dope or what, but we came out in the third and really started skating and imposed our will."
Jody Shelley, who was available to play after a battle with the flu, remained a scratch as Peter Laviolette stuck with the same lineup as in Tuesday's loss in Tampa Bay . . . Sergei Bobrovsky stopped 26 of 28 shots to atone for his three goals on six shots Tuesday night . . . It has been more than a month (Dec. 28) since the Flyers lost two games in a row . . . Last night's game was Jeff Carter's seventh three-point effort of the season. *
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