FIRST THING I would do if Sidney Crosby played for me is get an enforcer who doesn't finish what he started on his back.

This was the first sign last night that the strategy used by the Pittsburgh Penguins needed, um, a little tweaking.

Within the game's first minute, Pittsburgh left wing Ryan Malone, 6-4 and 224 pounds, was sent out to punish Jason Smith for a slash the Flyers' captain delivered on Crosby in the last game played between the teams, a Flyers win on Nov. 10.

After trading punches with Smith, Malone ended up on his back, underneath Smith.

With 54 minutes in 29 games, Malone entered the game with more than double the penalty minutes of any other Penguins player - and that might be a problem. In 41-year-old Gary Roberts and 31-year-old George Laraque, the Penguins have an element of toughness. But when the latter tried to stir things up, down three goals early in the third period, the result was both he and Roberts were sent off the ice for mixing it up with Ben Eager.

This left the rest of the Penguins to send the Flyers a message amid the 8-2 thrashing they received last night.

The message was this:

We can't fight.

Not a lick.

Over and over, the whistle blew to stop play and the fists flailed. First, Laraque roughed up Eager and received 4 minutes for it. Then Roberts challenged Eager near the Penguins' bench and, despite finishing with very little clothing on, represented middle-age men well.

He ended up on his back, of course. But for a while there, he gave that young fella all he could handle.

"Everyone knows there's a rivalry here," Crosby said. "Seems like it has kind of escalated each time we play. How many games have you seen like that?"

Let's see: Pens defenseman Ryan Whitney ended up on his back against Jeff Carter, his head slamming dangerously backward off the boards. Pittsburgh winger Colby Armstrong finished underneath Scott Hartnell.

"I don't want to hear any more talk about our team and how undisciplined we are," Flyers coach John Stevens said.

"I think we had to stick up for each other at some point," Crosby said. "They have a lot of guys who play physical. Probably take it beyond physical sometimes."

Maybe they have in the past. But Sid's own analysis of this game was that he, personally, was not banged around much, that the Flyers were not "overly physical." After owning the Flyers last season, the Penguins lost the first two meetings this season and entered last night's game tied with them. Crosby, who has more points against this team than any other, had been handled well in those first two games, banged and badgered, pushed off his game.

What we are learning is how easily that can be done. Despite getting assists on both goals and providing some highlight moments, Crosby finished with a minus-three for the game. He also dumped Martin Biron with a well-disguised trip, and spent more time jawing with Mike Richards than Rudy Giuliani did with Mitt Romney during their last debate.

The language was more colorful, of course, clearly discernible even to those with older TVs. So were the chants that descended upon him each time he was in on the action. None of it was particularly beneficial to his team.

"Do you have genuine dislike for this team?" he was asked.

"I'd say there's a rivalry there, yeah," he said with a wry smile.

There is no doubt that Crosby is the game's best player, that his playmaking has earned him the comparisons to the game's recent greats. But there is an edge to him that sets him apart from Wayne Gretzky and even Mario Lemieux. Gretzky nurtured his image. Crosby couldn't care less. At times it seems he revels in punking people, the way Claude Lemieux used to drive people around here nuts.

That, of course, has made him the same kind of fan favorite around here that Lemieux once was, except with far more talent. And it has flipped the two-decade-old obsession with the Devils, who do not have a player anywhere as annoying as Sid The Kid is.

That was clear as the third period wore on last night, and fans chanted "We want Crosby." He is 20, his best years clearly ahead of him. The Flyers are a young team that fits the same description. But they seem to be a little more organized right now than the Pens, or at least have more swagger.

One thing is certain: If they are going to send messages, they ought to write notes. At least until a few of them learn to fight better. *

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