After the staged histrionics of the Flyers/Rangers feud this season, it's nice to have an authentic blood-rivalry over which to salivate. The Pittsburgh Penguins and the Philadelphia Flyers hate each other only slightly less than their fans hate each other, and the last several months have seen this hostility intensify like someone piloting the Exxon Valdez into the middle of a brush fire.
The Penguins enter Thursday night's battle in Philly with 36 points in 28 games, with the Flyers right behind them (35 points) with two games in-hand. When healthy, the Penguins are considered perhaps the best team in hockey; the Flyers believe the same applies to them.
Philly will be without Chris Pronger (again) and the Penguins will be without Sidney Crosby, who was scratched for the next two games vs. the Flyers and New York Islanders for precautionary reasons and a touch of the Orange Flu.
(Mike Colligan believes it may have been a David Krejci elbow that shelved Sid.)
This deprives us of a Crosby vs. Claude Giroux fireworks display, as the Philadelphia forward leads the league in points (36) and leads in the early-season MVP race along with Phil Kessel and Jonathan Toews.
As if the game needed any additional drama, tonight marks the first time Max Talbot faces the Pittsburgh Penguins wearing another sweater. Said Crosby in an interview on 93.7 The Fan, prior to his being scratched:
"When Maxime Talbot is playing the type of game that he's playing it's pretty obvious you are going to cross paths at some point whether he is mixing it up with someone here or myself or whatever the case is. It's going to happen. That's the game. He's gotta do his job. We gotta do ours. I think we all understand that."
When Talbot agreed to a 5-year deal with the Flyers, it was seen by some as traitorous but by most as a business decision for both the player and the Penguins: He wasn't getting five years from Ray Shero.
But Jaromir Jagr's free agency … that was different. That was personal. That was a player stepping over a meticulously buried hatchet to grab a handout from the enemy.
"I told him I was kind of glad he [didn't] sign in Pittsburgh because he got a little bit of heat more than me," Talbot told us before the season. "They came after him as [Enemy] No. 1 more than me."
Will Jagr shine against the Penguins, or will the Penguins bottle him up?
Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik said that the Jagr rivalry is "for the fans" and that "with his personality, I wasn't shocked that he went to Philly." As for stopping him, he told Josh Yohe of the Tribune-Review:
"He's a guy that needs time and space," he said. "You've just got to be as physical as you can on him. That's what I remember from playing him (when he was with the New York Rangers). He's a big guy. You don't want to get out of position, but you've got to make it tough on him. When you do that, sometimes you get him off his game."
Jagr shared one training camp with Orpik; otherwise, he didn't appear in a Penguins sweater with anyone on the current roster. This feud may be fueled by the fans, even if Jagr was oblivious to it when he was introduced as a Flyer.
"First of all, when I was making the decision, I never thought that Pittsburgh fans would want me back. Every time I played there, they were booing me every time I touched the puck. I didn't think it would be such a big deal [to not play in Pittsburgh]," he said. "If I hurt somebody, I apologize, because I didn't want to."
His decision did hurt, however. It hurt the Penguins, who have seen Jagr thrive at 39 years old, helping to turn Giroux into a star as a linemate and acting as the power-play threat Penguins Coach Dan Bylsma hoped he'd be for Pittsburgh during his courtship. It could be said, without much debate, that the Penguins would be a better team with Jagr on its wing.
But he chose the Flyers for an extra $1.3 million, and that hurt too. Not only because the Steel City was high on the nostalgic kick of seeing him back in black and gold, and then saw him turn black and orange; but because the courtship of Jaromir Jagr was so ham-fisted and duplicitous on the player's end. From Joe Starkey of the Tribune-Review, who feels the process made Jagr look dishonorable:
Jaromir Jagr, on the other hand, with an assist from agent Petr Svoboda, sunk to the depths of dishonor in free agency. Jagr flirted with the Penguins. He insisted, through Svoboda, that his "heart" was here. Yet he couldn't take yes for an answer. Svoboda didn't even bother getting back to Penguins general manager Ray Shero before Shero's 11 a.m. deadline on free-agent day. It was a classless display that ruined any chance Jagr had of making peace with the franchise.
Now he's on the other side of the battlelines, not looking back at his decision because "there's no 'if' in life when you choose." Looking back at JagrWatch, The Pensblog writes that they've now forgiven Jagr twice for his business decisions:
Double J decided he wanted one more shot at the NHL, and the Penguins threw their hat into the ring. #JagrWatch was a fun ride, and we personally flew a little too close to the sun. In the end, the Penguins' offer was dwarfed by Philadelphia's. And as the news sank in, we were already well on our way to forgiving him again. He's a beast.
That he is, which is another reason why tonight's Penguins/Flyers game is more than just a tussle for the top of the division. It's also why his visit to Pittsburgh on Dec. 29 is going to be epic. Take it away, WDVE Mario (click for parody song) …