It may not have been polished, but it was still worth two points in the standings.
The Penguins scored two goals in the first period and fended off two late Flyers power plays, providing bookends for a 3-1 victory in Philadelphia on Saturday.
As expected following a four-month work stoppage, play was uneven and ragged for much of the afternoon, but the Penguins had enough strong moments to prevail in the first of 48 regular-season games.
Tyler Kennedy and James Neal scored less than three minutes apart early in the opening period, providing just enough offensive support for goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who stopped 26 shots. With the victory, the 27-year-old Fleury became the winningest netminder in franchise history while also shining against the team that buried him in last spring’s playoffs.
Two late penalties by Deryk Engelland and Evgeni Malkin gave the Flyers multiple opportunities to tie the score, but Fleury and his penalty killers were effective in clearing the crease. After Claude Giroux tripped Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang with a minute to go in regulation, Chris Kunitz tossed the puck into the empty net to help clear out a sold-out Wells Fargo Center.
Kunitz’s goal was technically on the power play, as was Kennedy’s redirection of Paul Martin’s shot with 4:40 gone in the first period. The Penguins went 2 for 3 with the man advantage while keeping the Flyers off the board on five opportunities.
Malkin looked like the most dominant player on the ice for most of the game, perhaps attributable to the half-season he played in Russia for his hometown Kontinental Hockey League team.
Last season’s NHL MVP earned an assist when he cleanly won an offensive-zone faceoff to linemate Neal, who rifled his patented wrist shot off Philadelphia goalie Ilya Bryzgalov’s glove and into the net with 12:40 left in the first.
If Malkin was Pittsburgh’s best player, Neal wasn’t far behind. His seven shots led all skaters in the game, as the hulking winger looked ready to continue his goal-every-other-game pace of last season.
Sidney Crosby looked his best in the first period, which followed the trajectory most of his teammates had. The Penguins’ energy level and decision-making seemed to largely diminish as the game went along.
Giroux scored 23 seconds into the second period to cut the Penguins’ lead in half, finishing a diagonal setup pass from Scott Hartnell at the right post. Giroux, playing his first game as Flyers captain, was at his stickhandling best and looked close to peak form.
Philadelphia controlled the second period, but the following intermission helped Pittsburgh regroup. In the end, some big stops by Fleury and a couple favorable bounces kept the game from heading into overtime. Wayne Simmonds had the Flyers’ best chance to tie in the final minutes, but his one-timer from inside the right circle hit the post, wasting a sweet pass from Giroux.
If the Penguins’ conditioning was tested Saturday afternoon, their recovery abilities will be strained Sunday evening, when they take the ice at Madison Square Garden against the New York Rangers. Pittsburgh opens at home Wednesday vs. Toronto.