December 14, 2010
For all the '24/7' and Winter Classic and Sidney/Ovie hype, comparing the Washington Capitals' rivalry with the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Philadelphia Flyers' beef with the Pens is like comparing a dispute over a mall parking space on Black Friday with nuclear tension on the Korean Peninsula.
Simply put, Flyers vs. Penguins is the NHL's best rivalry going as of 2010. There's palpable animosity. There's civic pride. There are personalities on both sides that love to antagonize. There's usually some outstanding hockey, either from a competitive or from a sports narrative standpoint.
Best of all this season: The Penguins and Flyers are both damn good, with Pittsburgh entering the game holding a 1-point edge on the Flyers in the Eastern Conference and Atlantic Division standings through 31 games. From Frank Seravalli of the Philadelphia Daily News, the stakes are high for a game before Christmas:
Rarely do games in the middle of December have such an impact on the standings, as it is not just the Battle of Pennsylvania tonight at the Wells Fargo Center but also the battle for first overall in not just the Eastern Conference but the entire NHL.
The Flyers, who are a league-best 7-1-1 against division opponents, are looking for their third win of the season against the Penguins.
He's tormented the Flyers to the tune of 60 points in his career, most against any NHL opponent. Can Philadelphia spoil Sid's streak before he matches his career best of 19 straight games with a point?
"It's hard to think that you can add to [the level of the rivalry]. It's always intense, no matter what," Penguins center Sidney Crosby said after practice at Southpointe before the team flew to Philadelphia.
"But I guess if there was a way to, it would be now, with the way the teams are playing. The rivalry's already there. ... There's a little more with the teams being so close. Both have a lot of pride. It's been a while. I'm sure both teams want to show what they've improved on and where they're at.
This season, the Flyers are 2-1, with two 3-2 victories in Pittsburgh and a 5-1 loss at home.
And Crosby's a different player. He had 15 points in October. He had 26 in November and has started December with 10 in five games.
"He's probably not whining as much," Chris Pronger said with a laugh. "When you've been in the league long enough and earned your stripes and obviously, winning a Cup, and playing at a high level for five, six years now, you earn your stripes and the respect of the officials. You get the calls. You mature a bit, as well."
Nevertheless, the dislike between the two teams, rooted in Crosby's arrival in the ‘Burgh, continues to this day. "You can tell the crowds here are really into it and the crowd here is obviously not Crosby fans," said Sean O'Donnell(notes) who's already picked up on that and he played the past five years out west. "Us and Pittsburgh ... you can definitely feel a difference in the room.
"Crosby - the thing with him, and I don't know him personally, but he is obviously a superstar, probably the best player in the game right now and he's got the mentality of a third or fourth liner. He constantly want to get better as a player. He's the hardest-working guy in practice, on the ice, he is Mr. Everything to the Penguins. It's tough to shut him down. You just try to contain."
In the last game in Philly, Kimmo Timonen(notes) and Braydon Coburn(notes) saw the majority of the even-strength action against Crosby, with Mike Richards(notes), Jeff Carter and Scott Hartnell(notes) up front. Hartnell has since moved into a line with Briere and Ville Leino(notes) that's played together (and played well) this season.
Whatever combo the Flyers put out, they'll see a different look from the Crosby line, according to Rob Rossi:
Center Evgeni Malkin(notes), out the past four games with a sore left knee, skated with center Sidney Crosby and winger Pascal Dupuis(notes) at Southpointe Iceoplex. Left wing Chris Kunitz(notes) did not practice, and coach Dan Bylsma labeled him as "day to day" because of undisclosed injuries from a win at Buffalo on Saturday night. "He's banged up," Bylsma said of Kunitz.
The Penguins would welcome the return of Malkin, who said he was "50-50" to play tonight ...
In a way, it stinks that these teams play only once more this season. In another, it makes tonight's tilt a measuring stick for both teams and a statement game in this rivalry for the Flyers.
Because they could be the team to end Sidney Crosby's point streak. Until, you know, he starts his next one.