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Penguins, Flyers still searching for normalcy as "weird" series continues

Philadelphia Flyers' Ilya Bryzgalov, of Russia, cannot stop a goal by Pittsburgh Penguins' Evgeni Malkin, of Russia, in the first period of Game 4 in a first-round NHL Stanley Cup playoffs hockey series on Wednesday, April 18, 2012, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

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Philadelphia Flyers' Ilya Bryzgalov, of Russia, cannot stop a goal by Pittsburgh Penguins' Evgeni Malkin, of Russia, in the first period of Game 4 in a first-round NHL Stanley Cup playoffs hockey series on Wednesday, April 18, 2012, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

PITTSBURGH, Pa. - Sidney Crosby keeps waiting for the madness to stop. Keeps expecting the law of averages to kick in. Keeps wondering when the series between the Flyers and the Penguins will start to resemble something close to playoff hockey.

And the games pass, and the goals and the fights and the penalties and the suspensions pile up, and the series continues to look like something played with joysticks, not hockey sticks.

"I think it's all kind of crossed our mind and probably a lot of other people's too," Crosby said. "You see that happen maybe once and you kind of think 'Oh, that's a weird game' and then in four games it's surprising but we've got to find ways to adjust and ways to win."

The Penguins finally found a way in Game 4, staving off elimination with a resounding 10-3 victory that silenced—at least for a night—critics who wondered if Pittsburgh was going to even bother showing up.

Yet for all the frustration released in 60 minutes of largely brilliant hockey, the Penguins are well aware it will mean little if they can't build on it in Game 5 on Friday night.

"The way we looked at it, it didn't matter if it was 2-1 or 10-3," defenceman Brooks Orpik said. "It's still only one win. You don't get any extra points for beating them by seven goals. We've dug ourselves a big hole and we just have to chip away at it, little by little here."

It's the only choice at Pittsburgh's disposal after squandering early leads in each of the first three games of the series. They believe they restored some sense of order during the final two periods Wednesday, holding the Flyers scoreless while padding their lead with six goals.

"We just kept it simple," Crosby said.

It's all that was required after watching Philadelphia implode. Starting goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov was pulled after surrendering five goals on just 18 shots. Backup Sergei Bobrovsky fared no better, letting in five of his own as the Flyers absorbed their worst playoff loss in more than a decade.

Though Bryzgalov will get the start again on Friday, Philadelphia recalled Michael Leighton from the minors this week perhaps as insurance. Leighton led the Flyers to the Stanley Cup finals in 2010 before injuries derailed his career and opened the door for Bryzgalov to sign a $51 million contract with Philadelphia last summer.

The deal is supposed to help Philadelphia end a 37-year Cup drought, one brought on largely by the lack of a superstar between the pipes.

Bryzgalov has hardly looked capable of leading a team to a title. His goals against average looks more like a mediocre baseball pitcher's ERA (4.95) and his save percentage (.844) so far is a career post-season low.

Philadelphia coach Peter Laviolette remains firmly behind Bryzgalov and is quick to point out the Flyers still have a commanding 3-1 series lead.

"I've said it before about Bryz, those first two games in Pittsburgh I thought he was—he made spectacular saves," Laviolette said.

Bryzgalov will need to do it again on Friday if the Flyers want to end the series. Pittsburgh tied a franchise record for goals in a playoff game without winger James Neal, who sat out while serving a one-game suspension for charging at Philadelphia's Claude Giroux in Game 3.

Neal watched Game 4 from the press box but sensed his teammates were on the verge of a breakout.

"There was confidence in the (dressing) room," Neal said. "Our backs were against the wall and we knew what we had to do."

They'll have to do it three more times to avoid a disappointingly early playoff exit at the hands of their archrivals.

The resounding nature of Pittsburgh's win on Wednesday, however, seemed to hint at a significant shift in momentum. The aura of inevitability that cloaked the Flyers after three decisive victories evaporated under an avalanche of Penguins goals.

"We're going to find out what kind of team we are, how we are built," Philadelphia forward Jaromir Jagr said. "If we are the team like we think we are, we're going to have to respond the next game."

The Flyers know what it's like to be down 3-0 in a series to win. They did it two years ago in the Eastern Conference semifinals against Boston. It's why they remain wary, though maybe they shouldn't be.

Philadelphia has owned the Penguins at Consol Energy Center since it opened two years ago, including a pair of comebacks in Games 1 and 2 last week. The Flyers were the NHL's best road team during the regular season and could get a boost from the possible return of James van Riemsdyk, who hasn't played since March 1 due to a broken foot.

Van Riemsdyk practiced on Thursday and could be available on Friday. Philadelphia may need his steadying presence after defenceman Nicklas Grossman went down with an upper-body injury in Game 4 and is day-to-day.

Either way, the Flyers understand they can't afford to play as loose defensively as they have throughout the series. Philadelphia didn't score for the last 44 minutes on Wednesday, the longest drought between goals by either team during four logic-defying games.

Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma believes a sense of normalcy will return even though "it hasn't gotten there yet."

Maybe it won't.

""I think this series will be remembered for decades for sure," Bryzgalov said.

Though only fondly by the winners.

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