The game started with bad blood boiling over and ended with real blood flowing.

If the Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins didn't have a classic rivalry before last night's festivities at the Wachovia Center, it is now officially on.

It started when Penguins defenseman Ryan Malone went after Flyers captain Jason Smith in the opening minute. The message was clear. Smith had slashed Penguins star Sidney Crosby in the teams' last meeting, and Malone was assigned to even the score.

By game's end, there were plenty of new scores to be settled Jan. 24, when the Penguins return to the Wachovia Center. Leave the kids home for that one.

"I don't want to hear anyone talk about our team and how undisciplined we are," Flyers coach John Stevens said after his team beat - and beat up - the Penguins, 8-2. "They had one penalty on a play where they could have had two or three."

Pittsburgh came into this game with a four-game winning streak. Crosby's already bright star was rising with his team's place in the standings. The Flyers, meanwhile, hadn't won a home game in too long and were starting to hear it from their fans.

It was the perfect time for a game like this. Crosby was hailed as a hero during his team's recent games in Western Canada. Here, he is treated a bit differently. The crowd boos when he touches the puck, chants insults about him and, by the end of this game, had switched to taunting, "We want Crosby, we want Crosby."

They wanted him because the game had deteriorated into a series of brawls. With the game out of reach on the scoreboard, the Penguins tried to send a message or five in the third period. The result was a total of 156 penalty minutes for the two teams - 98 for the Penguins.

"The game got out of hand," Stevens said. "They were breaking sticks over our guys on every play. There's no place in the game for that."

The Flyers answered with more goals and added injury to insult by winning the fights that erupted. Jeff Carter was pounding Ryan Whitney in one corner while Scott Hartnell pummeled Colby Armstrong in another.

The Flyers have taken a lot of heat this season for the series of questionable hits that have resulted in five suspensions by the NHL. After the last episode, which netted a three-game sit-down for Riley Cote, the league warned Stevens and GM Paul Holmgren that they would have to answer for any further misbehavior.

The suspensions had people wondering aloud if Holmgren was looking to re-create the old Broad Street Bullies image that defined - and also haunted - this franchise for a long, long time. But the reality was that those tough old Flyers teams weren't headhunters. They didn't dole out concussions with questionable hits. They fought you head-on and won the games, too.

Ironically, then, on a night when they played clean and hard, the Flyers looked more like the Bullies than ever.

For the first time in 22 years - before Crosby was born - two Flyers had hat tricks in the same game. Just to make things more delicious, R.J. Umberger and Joffrey Lupul were on the ice mostly to defend against Sid the Kid.

At one point in the third period, the Versus network's cameras caught Crosby and Mike Richards squared off. Lip readers would be shocked by what Crosby appeared to be shouting. The camera followed him to the bench, where he turned to a teammate and continued his diatribe.

Quick cut to Richards on the Flyers' bench, where he was grinning like the cat who harassed and hassled the canary into eating itself.

Crosby is a terrific player. He is also capable of some hit-and-run behavior of his own. He tripped up Flyers goaltender Martin Biron from behind in the third period, then hid behind teammate Georges Laraque, who took a dive into Biron's legs a few minutes later.

When things really got out of hand, Crosby was on the bench.

There's no way to defend all the fighting and foolishness to a non-hockey fan. The NHL has worked hard to steer the game away from the professional wrestling atmosphere and emphasize the skill and the speed that really make the sport fun to watch.

But a night like this has a certain, hard-to-justify appeal to those of us who grew up watching Bobby Clarke and Dave Schultz and Bob Kelly throw their bodies around and their gloves on the ice.

One thing is certain: There will be more bad blood when these teams meet later in the season. And that means more blood is likely to flow.

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