Warming up the NHL's most combustible, entertaining rivalry
There are 46,055 square miles in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, which means it is obviously not big enough for two NHL teams in May.
On the one end of this great, diverse state is Philadelphia, now 25 years removed from its last pro sports championship. At the other end is Pittsburgh, which, relatively speaking, collects titles the way Lindsay Lohan attracts the paparazzi. Other than license plates and garrulous, sports-loving governor Ed Rendell, these cities, and their hockey teams, share almost nothing other than a healthy dislike for each other.
The rivalry is back in the NHL.
For all the general carping about the post-lockout schedule -- there have been more sightings of Sasquatch in Western Conference cities than of Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby -- the overload of eight regular season games against division opponents actually did help put a measure of passion back in the game that the new rules had leeched out. (Column aside: the optimum way of fueling fierceness is to overhaul the playoff system and oblige teams to play their way out of their division each spring, but until two expansion teams are rammed down your throat, and at some point they will, the idea is hardly practicable.)
Familiarity itself doesn't breed contempt, but seven straight playoff games almost always do. In any case, slights that have been accumulating during a lengthy history sometimes also do the trick. Given the current level of vitriol, the Penguins and the Flyers seem to have a history that started about 20 minutes after the founding of colonial Penn's Woods.
Although Detroit and Colorado had the most disputatious rivalry of the past 15 years -- a badge of honor that should be retired after that four-game pillow fight between the Red Wings and Avalanche in the second round -- the matches between the Penguins and Flyers are now hockey's most combustible and most entertaining. (Don't think that Penguins coach Michel Therrien isn't aware. Pittsburgh's mild capitulation in the last regular-season game against the Flyers, which allowed it to avoid playing Philadelphia in the first round, is tacit acknowledgement.)
Unlike the improbable bad marriage between the Wings and Avs, which had nothing going on until 1996 when a dirty Claude Lemieux hit from behind basically rearranged Kris Draper's face, the Flyers-Penguins rivalry is more typical of the genre. While playoff meetings alone can create rivalries -- think Celtics vs. Lakers in the 1960s and again in the '80s -- the majority of the best rivalries are rooted in proximity.
The backyard brawl is often the most compelling, whether it's North Carolina-Duke in basketball, Texas-Oklahoma in football, or Packers-Bears in the NFL. Since the NHL expanded in 1967 by six teams -- the Flyers and Penguins were both charter members of the Original 12 -- almost every rivalry worth mentioning has been between teams that are within driving distance: Edmonton-Calgary, Montreal-Quebec and New York-Long Island.
The hoary chants of "Potvin Sucks" still echo from the blue seats at Madison Square Garden at least a few times a game. There probably would have been a blood feud between the New York Rangers and Islanders in any case, but even natural rivalries benefit from a flashpoint. In New York, the great Denis Potvin's check on the Rangers' Anders Hedberg in 1979-- Hedberg caught his stake in a rut in the Garden ice and broke his ankle -- added a dollop of bile to an already toxic brew.
For a few years early in this decade, Ottawa - Toronto, a modern-day albeit short-lived Hatfields vs. McCoys, was bolstered by the effrontery of Daniel Alfredsson, who hit the Maple Leafs' Darcy Tucker from behind and then went in to score the winning goal in Game 5 of their 2002 playoff Battle of Ontario.
The Flyers and Penguins have Nov. 16, 2005.
In that match in the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia defenseman Derian Hatcher high-sticked a precocious Penguins rookie named Crosby in the face. Hatcher, who has a reputation for head hunting, split Crosby's lips and loosened three front teeth with the unscheduled Sher-Wood root canal. Crosby went ballistic, shoving Hatcher and chewing out the referees who had failed to call a high-sticking penalty. Crosby, in turn, was whistled for unsportsmanlike conduct.
When he reached the penalty box, Crosby slammed his helmet against the wall. (For the mob at the Wachovia Center, this was red meat.) Crosby returned with four stitches and wound up scoring the overtime winner that night, but the Flyers remained unimpressed. Their coach, Ken Hitchcock, said the only time he noticed Crosby was on some breakaways.
Indeed, the Flyers labeled Crosby a diver, a canard the Rangers also tossed at him in their second-round series this month. The following season, Crosby torched the Flyers with six points in an 8-4 win as Pittsburgh swept the eight games between the teams.
It's odd how things work. For Pittsburgh, multiple playoffs against Washington had fixed the Capitals as a rival. And from a Philadelphia perspective, the Penguins mostly were a foe, including in the playoffs, but never the archenemy the Rangers were 90 minutes up the New Jersey Turnpike. Crosby and Hatcher raised the temperature of the games by 20 degrees, a heat wave likely to continue for a decade because of the presence of a superb core of young Flyers talent that can grow old in lockstep with the 20-year-old Crosby.
Mike Richards is the perfect foil for Crosby, a two-way center who will be in his kitchen, especially when the Flyers have the last change back in Philadelphia. And a talented defenseman, Braydon Coburn, will continue the harassment of Crosby long after Hatcher is collecting a pension check. After dispatching the Rangers in Game 5 last Sunday, Crosby acknowledged that the Flyers-Penguins series adds some "spice" to the playoffs.
Cayenne pepper, anyone?