PITTSBURGH -- This is a playoff story of the Two Bears.
Not a Mama, Papa and a Baby Bear. Just a brown bear and a polar bear.
Once upon a time -- OK, Wednesday night -- they galumphed to the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh to watch the Penguins open the 2012 playoffs against the Philadelphia Flyers. (Or at least the men in the bear costumes did.) They sat in the first row, by the glass in the corner at the end of the ice where the Penguins shot twice. Those seats must have cost a lot of honey.
Anyway, the Two Bears were there to haunt Philadelphia goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, who, before the series, had mentioned he fears nothing -- except a bear in the woods. (As he later explained to a journalist, he had a friend who had been mauled to death by a bear in Russia. In this case, bears are pretty reasonable things to be spooked by.) So in addition to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins gold dust twins, Bryzgalov would have to deal with the Two Bears, Whitey and Brownie.
"I did see a few bears," Flyers center Daniel Brière said. "But they didn't come out of the woods or the forest, so we were OK."
The Flyers' 4-3 overtime win in Game 1 of the first-round series might not be "humongous big," which is how Bryzgalov, the Carl Sagan of the Crease, so poetically described the universe on HBO's 24/7 series, but it was big enough for the visitors who withstood an egregious first period, stifled three Penguins power plays and overcame a three-goal lead to upend the presumptive Stanley Cup favorites. In a series that seems earmarked for seven games, Crosby reintroduced himself to playoff hockey, Bryzgalov and Penguins goalie Marc-André Fleury made a few blue-light-special saves, the linesmen blew an offsides call on a Brière goal, and everybody in Black and Orange Nation lived happily ever after, at least until Game 2 on Friday.
At home, Pittsburgh presents a nightmare defensive matchup because of its offensive balance and last change. So pick your poison: do you get your top defensemen out against Malkin's line or Crosby's line? But Flyers assistant coach Kevin McCarthy, who changes the Philadelphia defense, got caught twice in the first period with his third pair of Andreas Lilja and rookie Marc-André Bourdon against Crosby and linemates Pascal Dupuis and Steve Sullivan -- albeit once after an icing.
The second time, however, resulted in a Pittsburgh goal in the final minute, one of those knees to the groin heading into intermission. Crosby and Sullivan cycled the puck against the pair before Sullivan backhanded it back into the slot. Dupuis whacked at the puck, it flew up and over the unworried Bryzgalov, who let it roll off him like water off a duck's back.
The goal was not egregious, even if the timing was. Indeed, Bryzgalov was hardly a culprit on any of the three Pittsburgh first-period goals -- even if one stupendous save would have been nice.
But Crosby, who had made his re-entry to the NHL with authority (25 points in 14 games after returning from concussion/neck injuries) looked like he was on one of his playoff crusades after being pilloried in the past 10 days for his alleged whining and whacking. In the fourth minute, Crosby out battled defenseman Braydon Coburn along the right boards, found Kris Letang at the point and then made a beeline for the net. When Letang's shot pinballed through a thicket of players, including Dupuis, Crosby swooped in and backhanded the puck past Bryzgalov for his first playoff goal in 23 months.
Four minutes later, Letang stopped a puck outside the blue paint. The defenseman, another late-season returnee from concussion, then made a remarkable backhand 50-foot tape-to-tape backhand pass to Jordan Staal, who broke out on a two-on-one with Tyler Kennedy. Staal backhanded a pass past Lilja in tight and Kennedy, on his forehand, had half a net yawning in his face.
After the goal, Flyers coach Peter Laviolette called a timeout, which, in short order, was followed by a chant that echoed around Consol Energy Arena: "
Really, who doesn't? Unfortunately, the polar bear -- avert your eyes, kids -- removed his head in the second period. The good news is that this might have been the only time anyone had his head taken off in the arena Game 1. The match featured some big hits -- notably Staal on Flyers star Claude Giroux late in the first period when the Flyers were, as Laviolette put it, "hittable"-- but on the bloodbath scale that Philadelphia winger Scott Hartnell had promised ... well, it was closer to a bubble bath.
The Penguins took one penalty -- Braydon Schenn cruised through the slot and redirected a Hartnell slap pass on the power play with 7:37 left in the third period to force overtime -- while Philadelphia was nailed for just three minors. "There's a lot of respect," said Brière, who had missed the last three regular season games because of back spams sustained in a hit delivered by Penguins center Joe Vitale. "Both teams understand there's two of the best power plays on each side. You don't want your team having to kill against those units. Discipline is going to be a key factor in this series. Whoever doesn't have it is going to get knocked out pretty quick."
Whatever the reason, this was a whistle-to-whistle game marred by none of the shenanigans of recent games between these rivals that, in addition to the lure of the conspicuous skill on display, had made this among the most anticipated first-round series since the lockout.
But back to Bryzgalov. Sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear eats you, a statement first attributed to Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Preacher Roe. And sometimes a Flower just blows your mind. Fleury made an exceptional sliding save with his ride pad to foil Hartnell in the second period and an against-the-flow glove save on a Matt Carle 20-footer with 11 minutes left. Brière did beat him twice, of course, the first on a second-period breakaway on a play which he appeared to be a foot-and-a-half offsides and again in the third when the center wheeled out of the corner and fired a puck glove side that eluded him because Crosby, standing on the edge of the crease, was screening his goalie more completely than any Flyer forward could. "In my mind I was good," Brière said of his offsides goal. "No clue I was offsides ... I heard their bench yell a good 20 seconds after the goal, which was the first I heard about it. A couple of reporters told me I was, but I don't think I was. That's all that matters." Then he laughed, which is what the Flyers earned the right to do after Jakub Voracek scored the winner 2:23 into overtime when the Penguins' checking line, centered by Staal, went into hibernation.
"We've been in that situation before a couple of times this year," Bryzgalov said of the stirring comeback. "Pittsburgh is a great team, and they have great players. What we did today was unbelievable. Including the luck ... Down three goals in their building. When you're down, don't give up and we'll see how it goes. Fortunately for us, thank the hockey god because he was good for us today."
Well, that's the story. The bears were outstanding. The flightless waterfowl were excellent for a period and sluggish for two-plus others. The Flyers were magnificent in their comeback. And in the end, Brière was hot, the emotions were cold and the result for Philadelphia was just right.