THE NET at the other end of the ice was empty.
With the game on the line, the Flyers clinging to a 3-2 lead with 1 minute, 34 seconds remaining and Pittsburgh's most lethal weapons just a few feet to the side of Ilya Bryzgalov, Flyers coach Peter Laviolette sent out a player he knew could win an important defensive zone draw.
No, it was not Claude Giroux, who leads the Flyers with a 51.1 faceoff win percentage.
It was not Danny Briere, who is next in line - or even rookie Sean Couturier, who has played in last-minute nail-biters.
Laviolette tapped the shoulder of Max Talbot to dig in for the draw against his former teammates and bring back sole possession of first place in the Eastern Conference to this side of the Keystone State.
Fully aware of the dangers of a three-goal lead, skating less than 24 hours after they erased a three-goal hole in Buffalo, the Flyers took a crash course in how to keep one against the Sidney Crosby-less Penguins. Talbot's faceoff victory was one of just a few key moments last night as the Flyers survived for an emotional, 3-2 victory in front of a capacity crowd at the Wells Fargo Center.
"It wasn't our best last 10 to 12 minutes," Laviolette said. "But the guys really fought for it."
The Flyers (17-7-3) have won four in a row and six of their last seven games.
Among the Flyers, all eyes were on Talbot. Playing for more than just pride against some of his closest friends, Talbot said he could feel his new teammates pulling for him.
Talbot endured a few "chirps" from his former teammates. And he said he "hated" the signature, loud scream that Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury let out when he made a big save on him in close.
"It was obviously an exciting game for me," Talbot said. "I think everyone knew it, everyone knew about it. Every time a goal was scored, everyone on the bench would look over at me."
When it came down to it, Talbot said, "It was all business."
"Tonight, we took the lead and we had to play with it," Talbot said. "It was nice to get the goals and then have to protect the lead."
Aside from key faceoff wins late or a big hit from Andrej Meszaros to knock Evgeni Malkin off the puck, the Flyers were buoyed by a few big saves from Bryzgalov in the waning minutes. Pittsburgh doubled up on the Flyers in shots, 14-7, in the third period.
"He really shined in the last 10 or 12 minutes of the game when they were starting to press a little bit," Laviolette said. "He made the saves that we needed in order to make sure that we walked away with the two points."
It was the second time in the last 5 days that Laviolette called on Bryzgalov to start both games of back-to-back sets. Both games involved travel. And last night's was against a team that arrived in Philadelphia a full 12 hours before the Flyers landed from Buffalo.
"This was a big game for him," Laviolette said. "If it was any other team, we . First place was on the line. We wanted to make sure we got the points."
"That's why we love hockey," Bryzgalov said. "It's an unpredictable game. Some games you're up 3-0 and you need to battle hard to protect what's left of a one-goal lead. I think we were tired because we had a tough game [Wednesday] night and travel and a pretty intense game tonight. That's why Pittsburgh had an advantage in the first period."
Acknowledging a possible dip after a furious comeback the night before, Laviolette was pleased with his team's competitiveness.
"I think any time you have to climb back into a game, there's a physical toll as well as an emotional toll when you have to get back into a game when you're down three goals," Laviolette said. "[For] one thing, we're fortunate in a way that it was the Penguins, because it builds that [emotion] back up. I really liked the way we attacked the game."
Defenseman Andrej Meszaros turned in a monster performance with one assist, seven hits, one shot, three blocked shots and two takeaways . . . Claude Giroux increased his NHL scoring lead to two points on Toronto's idle Phil Kessel . . . The Flyers are 3-2-1 this season in the second game of back-to-back sets . . . The Flyers are 5-1-1 in their last seven games against the Penguins, dating back to last season . . . Stretching back to the start of the 2008-09 season, 11 of the Flyers' last 19 games with the Penguins have been decided by one goal.
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