PHILADELPHIA -- Now the Philadelphia Flyers have a distraction.
The Flyers delicately tiptoed around two potentially monstrous disruptions -- coach Roger Neilson's banishment to the press box and the injured Eric Lindros' return to the practice rink -- in order to keep their focus on the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Or did they?
The Flyers, playing for the first time in a week, looked distracted, tentative and rusty in a 2-0 loss to Pittsburgh in Game 1 Thursday, allowing the Penguins to dictate the game's flow and personality.
So, one game into an Eastern Conference semifinal series many in Philadelphia regarded as a foregone conclusion, the Flyers face their first crisis of these 2000 playoffs. It threatens to unravel their season, much like the last two came apart with first-round losses the last two years to Buffalo and Toronto.
Even if they win Game 2 Saturday, the Flyers have conceded home ice to the Penguins, who had lost 16 consecutive games in Philadelphia. The Flyers' challenge is to seize it back from a confident, improving team that took out second-seeded Washington in the first round.
"We feel good about our chances. We have nothing to lose," said Penguins star Jaromir Jagr, who leads playoff scorers with 11 points in six games. "There's no pressure on us."
Instead, the pressure has shifted to the Flyers, who proved unworthy of handling such crises in their recent playoff past. They have not lost the first game of a series and gone on to win that series since 1989.
"We weren't going to win four straight," Flyers forward John LeClair said. "That's a pretty good team over there.
But not the top-seeded team, like the Flyers are. Should the Flyers somehow lose again Saturday, and the pressure cooker environment created by some of the most demanding fans in sports may become insufferable as the series shifts to Pittsburgh for Games 3 and 4 next week.
"I think you'll see a better hockey game, period, Saturday," Flyers forward Mark Recchi said. "You'll see better skating, you'll see more physical play, and I look for our team to respond. I'm sure you'll see us playing the game we have to play."
That wasn't the game they played Thursday, when the uncharacteristically disciplined Penguins clogged up the neutral zone, took away the passing lanes, sealed off the boards to prevent rushes and prevented the Flyers from cycling the puck. The Penguins clearly had the edge in speed, and they used it to their great advantage.
"They tried to be physical, but I think we had a really good game plan," defenseman Darius Kasparaitis said Friday. "We kept the puck out of our zone, and we didn't let them do any cycling or forechecking. We did a good job of that, but I think they're still going to be very physical in Game 2."
Coach Herb Brooks said the seventh-seeded Penguins had no choice but to play the way they did.
"You've got to dictate things and, if you don't, they'll start dictating to you," he said, "Then, boy, you're in trouble. ... We've got to play that type of defensive game to be successful."
Despite finally ending the six-year losing streak in Philadelphia, the Penguins kept preaching Friday that one game, one road victory doesn't make a series.
A year ago, they beat Toronto 2-0 on the road -- sound familiar? -- in Game 1 of their second-round series, but the Maple Leafs won four of the next five games.
"It's only one game," Jagr said. "They could win the next four."
The Penguins have been outshot in all six playoff games, and were outshot 28-14 in Game 1. Yet they always seem to get as many good scoring chances as their opponent, and goaltender Ron Tugnutt's strong play is allowing them to maintain leads.
Of course, Jagr can neutralize any such disadvantages by himself. Of his four playoff goals, three have been game winners, including his first-period goal Thursday.
"We played into their hands in Game 1," Flyers forward Rick Tocchet said. "We weren't sharp. I don't think you'll see that Saturday."
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