Stars come to play

STEVE SIMMONS

, Last Updated: 11:36 AM ET

PITTSBURGH -- Outside the Mellon Arena, in a place where hockey was presumed dead not so many years ago, the people began to gather in the early afternoon.

They were wearing jerseys that read Malkin and Crosby and Fleury and even throwbacks like Lemieux and Jagr, people shouting for tickets, getting their seats lined up beside the big screen in the parking lot: The kind of atmosphere that wreaks of big time sports.

Only the forever-on-life-support Pittsburgh Penguins -- the club that has led the NHL in ownership changes -- weren't supposed to be big time anymore.

The emergence of Sidney Crosby was supposed to and did change all that: But the first name in this firm of stars, at least in appearance, may not necessarily be Crosby anymore. The place belongs to Evgeni Malkin, who has emerged, right alongside Alexander Ovechkin, as the most electric performer in hockey.

He played that part in the second half of the season -- and from the time Crosby went down with an injury -- and he continued to play the part last night.

On opening night of the Eastern Conference final, this close to the Stanley Cup, the stars came out to play and young Malkin again turned out to be the biggest of them all.

Malkin had another defining game, scoring twice, setting up another, making plays that seemed both dangerous and impossible in the Penguins' 4-2 win over the Philadelphia Flyers.

It wasn't just Malkin. No slouch himself, Crosby scored a goal and gave the undermanned Flyers defence fits.

And not necessarily to be out done -- although he was, and played awfully well in doing so -- emerging star Mike Richards of Philadelphia scored two down-low goals in the first period, when it appeared as though the Flyers game plan consisted of camping out in front of Pens goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.

The Flyers spent so much time in front of Fleury early on that it appeared as though they had arranged a permit for being there.

Malkin, however, changed everything. With each playoff night, he seems to grow just a little more spectacular -- the way he, and maybe a handful of other NHL players can. Only he seems a little bigger, a little stronger, a little less quotable than the rest.

Two plays Malkin made last night separated him from everyone else. One came with just seconds remaining in the first period of a tie game, the other came after he was belted into the boards by Richards early in the second period.

As the clock ticked down to end the first period, Malkin took advantage of a careless Philadelphia turnover, turned, broke down his off-wing and whipped a snap shot past a bewildered Martin Biron to give Pittsburgh a 3-2 lead. There were just 6.5 seconds left in the period.

Then, on a penalty-kill, Richards knocked down Malkin behind the Flyers net, and the young Penguin took his time getting back into the play. But his delay ended up with Sergei Gonchar finding him for a breakaway.

Malkin skated all the way to the centre hashmarks and, from close in, wired a slap shot behind Biron. After that, the Flyers were done.

Biron, so sharp in the first two rounds of the playoffs, didn't seem quite up to that standard last night. In the opening round, he faced Ovechkin, but not the kind of secondary offence Pittsburgh comes back with. And in Round 2, Montreal didn't offer this kind of breakthrough play.

Now the Flyers, as if they didn't know this coming in, have to figure out a way to stop not just Malkin, but Crosby. And you could see, early on, that in one-on-one battles, there was clear confidence on the part of both that no one Flyers defenceman could handle them. They couldn't.


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