PITTSBURGH - This season, Sergei Bobrovsky has tended goal like Roy Halladay pitches, which is to say that he looks like a sieve early in the game before settling down to perform like a star.

Last night, it took just 44 seconds for the Penguins' Jordan Staal to beat him. Last week in Dallas, Michael Ryder found the net in 56 ticks.

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Bobrovsky has allowed just 30 goals this season. Including last night, eight of those goals have come in the first period; five of them were in the first 7 minutes of a game.

Bobrovsky, 23, gave Ilya Bryzgalov the night off at Consol Energy Center after "Bryz" turned in one of his worst performances of the season Tuesday night in Tampa Bay. Flyers coach Peter Laviolette said he would best describe "Bob" as "really sharp."

"Bob works really hard," Laviolette said. "In practice, he's looked really good. I know he likes playing games and wants to play games, but he's got a tremendous work ethic off the ice. On the ice, he keeps himself extremely well prepared. He's been excellent in the starts that he's had recently."

The Flyers are 8-2-2 in games in which Bobrovsky starts this season. They are 13-9-3 when Bryzgalov is in between the pipes for puck drop. And entering last night's game, Bob had a stellar 1.47 goals-against average and .950 save percentage over his previous six appearances.

"He was great," Laviolette said of Bobrovsky's performance last night. "He got that tough one , but I think that shows his mental toughness to come back and make some big saves for us after [the early goal]. He's been really good for us."

Now, after Bobrovsky has bounced back to allow just one goal outside of the first minute in his last two starts, which goaltender will start in the iconic Winter Classic on Monday?

Does Laviolette go with his $51 million man in the most visible NHL game of the season? Or does he go with his best statistical chance to win for a game that counts in the already tight standings?

Yesterday, when asked before the game what was more important, a win or "not hurting anyone's feelings," Laviolette's answer was direct and simple.

"The only thing that really matters is to get the two points," Laviolette said.

With that said, he would not comment on his Winter Classic starter, which is his custom to not announce any lineup decisions ahead of time.

Laviolette was asked once more following last night's game.

"Let's stick to tonight," the coach said after the Flyers 4-2 win. "I'm not even out of the building yet."

Couturier returns

Rookie Sean Couturier returned to the lineup last night for the first time since taking a Kimmo Timonen slap shot to the back of the head on Dec. 17. He missed four games with a head contusion, but was never diagnosed with a concussion.

"I haven't had any headaches or any big symptoms," said Couturier, who set up Matt Read's wrister that gave the Flyers a 3-1 lead last night. "It was more like a bruise on the head, and obviously it's the head, so you have to be careful with that. I feel great. I feel back to normal."

Couturier also said the hearing in his left ear is "much better," since he "could barely hear" when the injury first happened against Boston, but that it's not completely returned just yet.

Ott speaks

Thanks to HBO's cameras revealing that Laviolette didn't exactly play nice during a first-intermission off-ice altercation in Dallas on Dec. 21, Stars instigator Steve Ott somehow emerged clean from the situation that went unpunished by the NHL.

Rather than walk off the ice with his players, Laviolette took a shortcut to the locker room and tried to use the Stars' tunnel in the American Airlines Center. HBO captured Ott saying "show a little respect and wait for our team."

Laviolette responded with "Go [bleep] yourself" and shoved Ott out of the way.

"It's good they caught it on video," Ott told the Dallas Morning News yesterday. "I think some people were all over me to get a suspension or a fine because they didn't know what was said. Now they're probably saying, 'What a nice guy he is.' "

Ott said he and Laviolette aired out their issues the next day with NHL senior vice president Colin Campbell on a telephone hearing.

"He was good about it," Ott said. "He didn't know the protocol in the West or our building, and it was more or less that I hope you have respect for me, I have respect for him, and we went about our business."

Quotable

"I don't think you can compare my sip of coffee on Long Island, or my full cup of coffee in Carolina, with Max's full cup here in Pittsburgh. I think time always factors into those things. He's one of those character kids who prides himself on working a full 60 minutes. You can never go wrong with that."

- Flyers coach Peter Laviolette about Max Talbot's first game in Pittsburgh last night after 5 years with the Penguins. Laviolette temporarily took Talbot off his regular line to put him in the starting lineup. Talbot was greeted with a stirring, standing ovation and video tribute during a first-period stoppage.