The Flyers appear locked into a first round playoff series with their bitter in-state rival, the Pittsburgh Penguins. I can’t imagine a more intriguing playoff series.
Not since the days of Igor Ulanov’s Lightning, Scott Mellanby’s Panthers, Matthew Barnaby’s Sabres, and Scott Stevens’ Devils have I been more excited to see a Flyers team pummel a playoff opponent.
Obviously, regardless of opponent, the NHL playoffs always provide the most physical, passionate, and intense atmosphere in sports, but when you put two teams that already hate each other into an oval and tell them to play until a team wins four times, you’re going to get fireworks. Or, in this case, dynamite.
The closing minutes of Sunday’s regular season clash set the stage for a grueling playoff war. Coaches screaming across benches, cheap shots, late hits, finger pointing, fights; we saw it all. Sunday’s final seconds were about two teams trying to ensure their message was sent loud and clear.
For the Flyers, it was was about resiliency and domination. They’ve owned the Penguins this season and especially in Pittsburgh dating back to 2010 (5-0). In the team’s last two meetings, the Flyers erased two goal deficits to win. More importantly, they’ve dominated the 3rd period from every standpoint; scoring, physicality, mental fortitude. Even goaltending favors the Flyers at this point. They have the Penguins on their heels and both sides know it.
For the Penguins, Sunday’s closing shenanigans were about desperation, trying to prove to a Flyers team that has bullied them in two consecutive 3rd periods that they can’t be pushed around. While it wasn’t a cheap shot that leveled Danny Briere, it was undoubtedly calculated. Pittsburgh put its 4th line on the ice with less than 90 seconds remaining – a line that hadn’t played the previous 12 minutes. Briere is now injured and out indefinitely.
Anyone who knows hockey knows what a coach’s intentions are when he puts his 4th line on the ice in a game that has already been decided. Was it wrong? Not at all, especially after the cross check on Sydney Crosby just a few minutes earlier. Pittsburgh’s coach, Dan Bylsma, felt the need to protect his star player, and rightfully so. Similarly, Peter Laviolette had every right to want (and try) to rip Bylsma’s face off and throw him from the bench.
I watched the game with my brother-in-law and mentioned that Laviolette needed to insert his goons in order to protect his stars when there were more than four minutes left. I’d seen Evgeni Malkin continually use his glove to exfoliate the face of several Flyers and knew exactly where the game was headed. Instead, Laviolette sent out his usual lines to close out the game and avoid a brouhaha. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. It happens. It will only make the playoffs that much more intriguing.
As we’ve witnessed over the last two weeks, the Flyers are fully capable of eliminating the flashier Penguins from the postseason. What the Flyers lack in big names and gaudy numbers they make up for with heart, resiliency, and attitude. If you think Pittsburgh’s attempts to rattle the Flyers in those final seconds worked, take a look at Scottie Hartnell. With 20,000+ fans throwing debris and wishing they could rip his hair out, Hartnell calmly mocked the Hulk Hogan look-alike seated right behind the Flyers bench with Hogan’s famous hand-to-ear routine.
The moment had nothing to do with the game or the outcome, but it painted a very clear picture for the Penguins and their fans; “Do whatever you gotta do. We’re not scared. We own you.” Hopefully, three weeks from today, that picture will be just as clear.