There is no shame, if you have any sense of grace or even a small measure of self-respect, in taking perverse pleasure in watching Sidney Crosby torment and toy with the Flyers in this first-round playoff series.
No opposing athlete arouses the same animosity here that Crosby does, none drives the most repellent segment of the Flyers' fan base battier than he does, and none responds to the vitriol with the same excellence. He was the best and most productive player on the ice in the Penguins' 5-1 Game 3 rout on Sunday, scoring their first goal and adding three assists thereafter. This, four days after a hat trick in Game 1. This, amid another example of the puerile behavior that too many Flyers fans are too happy to exhibit.
Two years ago, in a blowout postseason loss to the Washington Capitals, it was a shower of translucent wristbands to the ice, putting the players and officials at risk of injury. This time, it was a clandestine and apparently successful mission to put a photograph of Crosby at the base of every urinal in the Wells Fargo Center. The Flyers, through two spokesmen, said that they were not responsible for the photos' strategic placement throughout the arena. And though there's no way to know whether every urinal in the building contained a Crosby photo, a quick reporting excursion confirmed that each of the three in the men's room near Section 118 did.
"It's not the first building it's happened in," Crosby said. "I don't know if they stole that idea from someone else, but yeah, that's not the first time that's happened."
Terrific. Not only were the stunt's masterminds classless, they were unoriginal. Understand: The prank wasn't necessarily a reflection on the Flyers or even most of their followers. But it was a reflection on plenty of them, and it was stupid and sophomoric, another validation of the worst stereotypes of Philadelphia sports fans, the kind of thing that a high school meathead finds funny but that comes off to any mature person as pathetic. At one point, the arena videoboard showed a succession of Flyers-Penguins highlights. There were goals. There were brawls. There were the words fierce rivalry. It was the perfect pump-this-place-up catalyst if you could manage to forget some relevant history: The Flyers haven't won a championship in nearly 43 years and have been chasing Crosby and the Penguins for a decade now, and the object of everyone's discontent Sunday could have spent those minutes sitting on the bench and buffing his three Stanley Cup rings to a sparkling shine.
In that context, amid that reality, it was difficult not to derive some satisfaction from seeing Crosby make one dynamic play after another. The Flyers were the better team through the game's first 10 minutes, until Crosby swooped in from the left-wing boards, accepted a deft pass from Patric Hornqvist, curled around the Flyers' net, and emerged at the other side to stuff the puck home. He assisted on the Penguins' third goal, a right-circle blast by Evgeni Malkin, then won the ensuing center-ice faceoff, surged into the Flyers' zone, and found Brian Dumoulin just five seconds later for a wrist shot that slipped through Brian Elliott's legs – for a stunning and silencing 4-0 lead.
By the time the final horn sounded and the Penguins' 2-1 series lead was official and Crosby's name was announced as the game's first star, there were barely enough fans left for a weak-throated boo. The obvious hostility had seemed to inspire him.
"It's an indication of how competitive he is," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. "He thrives in that environment. He has a comfort level in that environment. So when the stakes are high, if we're in an away building and there are important games, Sid tends to play his best. … He just thrives on it, and that's why he's the elite player that he is, and that's why he's as accomplished as he is."
Crosby now has 30 points in 20 career playoff games against the Flyers, and in style and substance, he is proving a more-talented iteration of Bobby Clarke. Beyond their offensive skills and leadership, both were willing to engage in gamesmanship or tread the line of clean play – and sometimes cross it – to gain an edge.
Any Flyers fan bemoaning the frequency with which Crosby uses his stick blade like a prison shiv either has a selective memory or is too young to remember that, to Clarke, the structural integrity of Valeri Kharlamov's ankle was a small price to pay for victory in the 1972 Summit Series. Anyone suggesting, as Flyers coach Dave Hakstol did, that Crosby embellished or exaggerated the effect of a love-tap-like slash from Claude Giroux early in the second period Sunday – a penalty that led to the Penguins' second goal, by Derick Brassard – would praise another player for exhibiting the same method acting.
Crosby burns with the same fire to win that the greatest Flyer of all did, and perhaps their similarities account for why people here hate him so much: He reflects the very qualities that they demand from their own superstars. They know at their subconscious core that they would adore him if he played for their team.