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Heated Flyers-Penguins series ends with another Pittsburgh letdown

The Penguins learned a tough lesson Sunday. You can only dodge a bullet for so long. Especially when you keep supplying the other guys with ammunition.

The Penguins, regarded by many as Cup favorites, were quickly disabused of any comeback notions as the Flyers romped 5-1 to close out their tempestuous first-round series in six games.

"We needed to play perfect hockey to stay in this series, to win this series, and we didn't get the kind of start we needed today," said Sidney Crosby, who managed just two quiet shots for the day. "We felt like we could get it back to Pittsburgh, and now we have some time to think about why we didn't."

While he and his teammates are left looking for answers, Claude Giroux had them all.

The Flyers forward said Saturday that his team was "due for a great 60-minute, all-around game." They finally delivered, taking full advantage of another power play -- Philly was 11-for-23 against the hapless Pittsburgh penalty kill for the series -- and another round of skittish goaltending from Marc-Andre Fleury to seal the deal against their in-state rivals.

Giroux set the tone early with a clean, hard hit that sent Crosby sprawling to the ice six seconds in. And 26 seconds later, Giroux formalized his team's intentions with a snapper from the top of the circle that beat Fleury high to the stick side for a 1-0 lead.

Take it out of the context of the moment and it's fair to say that shot probably beats any goalie in the NHL. It was an absolute laser from Giroux, who offered up the best hockey of his young career while setting a franchise record with 14 points in the series.

Of course, you can't take it out of context. Good goal or not, the timing of it left the Pens dazed and wondering if this was a sign that the horrendous goaltending that sank them into a three-game hole to start the series was back.

It was.

It's hard to understand what happened to Fleury, who posted a 4.63 goals-against average and an .834 save percentage in six games. Mental toughness always has been one of the hallmarks of his game. The guy flat-out competes. But throughout this series, you could see the doubt in his eyes. You saw him scrambling out of position, fumbling away rebounds. He was out of sync.

It might have started with the sluggish coverage in front of him in Games 1-3, but he can't point the blame anywhere else after this one. These were on him.

Philly's second goal? Scott Hartnell dives in to poke a rebound between Fleury's legs after Fleury fails to control a Giroux slapper.

The third? One of the softest daggers in NHL history as defenseman Erik Gustafsson -- a guy with one NHL goal before Sunday -- wrists an unscreened 50-footer that sails over Fleury's glove untouched.

The fourth? Another misplayed rebound, this time off a soft shot from Danny Briere that bounces around Fleury's feet for a moment before being knocked behind him by ham-handed teammate Brooks Orpik.

Oh, and that one came just 36 seconds after Evgeni Malkin had sparked the Pens with a power-play goal midway through the second.

That's the way it went. Every time Pittsburgh managed to light a candle, there was Fleury to blow it out.

He just couldn't come up with the stop that gave his teammates a reason to believe. It might not have mattered even if he had.

The Flyers finally delivered that 60-minute game, or as close to it as possible. They sagged briefly after scoring their first goal, going almost nine minutes before testing Fleury again, but the outcome was never in doubt given how precisely they executed their defensive plan.

Everyone knew the Flyers could put the puck in the net. This was where they proved they could play shutdown hockey, too.

They were aggressive, but not stupid, taking just five minor penalties. They identified the players who could hurt them and threw a team-wide blanket over them. NBC's Brian Engblom called it the "it takes a village approach," a perfect description. Even when Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma went Chex Mix with his lines, trying to create some kind of offensive chemistry and shake Philly's defense, it didn't help. The Flyers were so consistent, so well positioned.

And they paid the price. Philadelphia blocked 40 shots to just 14 by Pittsburgh. That stat can mean a lot of things, but today it was simple: Facing that pressure, Pittsburgh didn't have the will to battle down low, instead settling for low-percentage, long-range shots that never got close to the net.

Midway through the second, the body language on the Pittsburgh bench said it all. The Flyers were simply better.

It was an anti-climatic finish to a series that had provided so much excitement.

For the Penguins, a postseason that began with so much promise ends with a whimper.

And in the East? It looks like the road to the Cup goes through Philadelphia.

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