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Anatomy of a Rivalry

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

As the Flyers-Penguins series draws closer, you’re going to see journalists everywhere predicting a bloodbath fueled by eight games of regular season divisional play.  But just as people fail to observe that ogres, like onion, have layers, the Pennsylvania pugilism has far deeper roots than eight bouts in an 82-game schedule could produce.

Historically speaking, the fire began in the early 1990s, when the Pittsburgh Penguins were flying high with consecutive Stanley Cup victories, the great Mario Lemieux, and the flash Jaromir Jagr.  Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Flyers had sunk from the high of the mid-1980s to missing the playoffs.  To this day, Flyer fans hurl whistles and cat calls at Jaromir Jagr whenever he comes to the Wachovia Center, commemorating the long-gone mullet that used to fly behind him as he whirled down the ice as a Penguin.

Moving forward, you discover the 2000 playoffs.  The Flyers entered PIttsburgh behind by two games.  Both teams received great goaltending from goalies Ron Tugnutt (Pittsburgh) and rookie Brian Boucher (Philadelphia).  But the most memorable scene came in the fifth overtime of Game 4.  Keith Primeau, who had only scored 7 goals in 78 career playoff games, managed to place a wrist shot over the shoulder of Tugnutt, tying the series and giving the Flyers the necessary momentum to advance to the next round.

And then came the lockout.  Veterans left North American for the various European leagues; youngsters stayed here to play in their clubs’ AHL affiliates.  Check out some names from the 2004-2005 Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins: coach Michel Therrien, Ryan Whitney, Maxime Talbot, Kris Beech.  And for the Philadelphia Phantoms: coach John Stevens, Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, RJ Umberger, Randy Jones, Riley Cote, Antero Niittymaki.  That year the Baby Pens and the Phantoms met in a heated playoff war, from which the Phantoms emerged victorious and advanced to win the Calder Cup.  Note the coaching staff.  Anyone wondering where this year’s war of words may have begun?

Coming out of the lockout, we stumble across the Sidney Crosby era.  Bill Fleischman gives a great rundown of Crosby’s relationship with the Flyers and their faithful fans, so I won’t go too deeply into the ins and outs.  Let’s just say it involves Derian Hatcher, the loss of some teeth, a face wash exchange with Peter Forsberg, and a strong belief that Crosby cries too much. 

Last season the Penguins swept the eight-game season series.  This season the Flyers came back with a vengeance, stirring the pot with an 8-2 crushing of the Pens in December.  Laraque executed a baseball slide into Martin Biron, and Philly fans chanted “We want Crosby” when Therrien benched his star halfway through the third period.  Pittsburgh responded by delivering their own crushing blow: a 7-1 home ice victory over the Flyers in February.  And all this was surrounded by the constant verbal sparring between head coaches Stevens and Therrien.

Neither team wants to reach the Final Four just to go home.  Especially if defeat means losing to this partcular opponent.  It may well be a war, physical beyond anything we’ve witness thus far.  But at least there will be plenty of material to build new layers into the cross-state rivalry.

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