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Hartnell, Flyers keeping retaliatory ways in check

"The more they acted like idiots, the more we wanted to play." - Lindy Ruff, after the Sabres defeated the Flyers, 8-2, in Game 2 of their 2006 playoff series

"The more they acted like idiots, the more we wanted to play."

 - Lindy Ruff, after the Sabres defeated the Flyers, 8-2, in Game 2 of their 2006 playoff series

 "I've seen his teams do the same thing, too . . . Tell Lindy to go [bleep] off."

 - Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock moments later

BUFFALO - Sometimes, reputation precedes you. Sometimes any aggression, even when it involves being on all fours and on the receiving end of an unforgiving piece of lumber, gets you implicated.

Scott Hartnell embodies the first three games of this playoff series, which is another way of saying expectations should have expiration dates. The Buffalo Sabres are outhitting the Flyers, out-chippying the Flyers, getting in the better shots after the whistle. They also trail this series, two games-to-one, entering tonight's game at the HSBC Center, and, as Ruff said yesterday, "I wouldn't trade outscoring for outhitting."

So far, there is no talk on Buffalo airwaves of matching the Flyers' goonery, no plea to the NHL from local media to rein in those animals from Philadelphia for the sanctity of the game. These Flyers are not ruining the game, making a mockery of it, yada, yada, yada. And Hartnell on all fours Monday night is Exhibit A as to why.

This was during the second period, in between the goal that put the Flyers ahead and the one that gave them some control. With the Flyers on a power play, Hartnell was crosschecked to the ice by Buffalo defenseman Mike Weber, who then landed repeated shots to Hartnell's back and neck in full view of the officials. Hartnell eventually found his feet, but did nothing to earn the matching minor he received.

The penalty was issued on reputation, plain and simple. And when Hartnell didn't draw a penalty for a punch to his neck after the whistle in the third, that, too, was about reputation.

"Maturity, age - I've learned a lot of lessons over the years," he said yesterday. "Had a lot of meetings after I've taken some penalties in the past.

"You guys have made it easy, too, reading some of your comments."

Yeah, I know, he took an after-the-whistle penalty in Game 2. And Hartnell's double minor at the end of the first period Monday night created havoc for his team. But his intentions then were neither retaliatory nor necessarily wrong. He received the first penalty for tying up Drew Stafford as he crashed the net. With the Flyers in disarray and the Sabres still in control of the puck, knocking the net off its moorings stopped play, got a faceoff, wasn't the dumbest of plays.

Even with his MO, he couldn't have anticipated a double minor there. Point is, there was no dumb punch after the play, no ill-placed act of aggression. Ruff actually praised Hartnell yesterday for his hustle setting up the Flyers' second goal, lifting the stick of Buffalo defenseman Chris Butler as he emerged from behind his net and fed Danny Briere.

"A helluva play," the Sabres coach said.

"I think Scott is playing really hard right now," Flyers coach Peter Laviolette said. " . . . You see him in a lot of scrums out there. He's done a pretty good job with his discipline in those scrums. He hasn't reacted. It would have been easy after he got crosschecked seven, eight times in a row and punched someone in the head, and he didn't.

"There's no question, from when I first got here, I think we're more disciplined in what we do. We still take penalties, and there's still penalties I wish we didn't take. But there were a lot of individual penalties going on when I first got here. Slashing or punching or getting up and punching someone in the head . . . Every time you do something and you're on your way to the box, you should probably think to yourself, 'Should I have done that? Is there something else I could have done?' "

The change in playoff personalities, especially for those of us who recall Ruff's purported outrage back in 2006, is both shocking and amusing. Now it is Ruff trying to find the balance between aggression and overexuberance, especially with his young and playoff- inexperienced team.

"It's plays that make a difference," he said yesterday. "Maybe in some cases hitting makes a difference. If you want to hit somebody and get the puck back? That's a good hit. If you want to backcheck and break up a play, good. If it's 2 seconds after a play? That's not a difference-maker to me.

"Sometimes, hitting can take away the will of the other team. I don't think we're going to take the will away from the Flyers. I think maybe they're surprised that we keep coming all the time."

Well, maybe at first. But Game 1 cured them of that. And maybe the experience of last year's run is kicking in some, too. The Flyers blocked 17 shots Monday night, almost twice as many as Buffalo. They absorbed 26 hits, not quite double what they dished.

Time and again, they have turned the other cheek.

And in doing so, have turned this series around. *

Send email to donnels@phillynews.com. For recent columns, go to www.philly.com/SamDonnellon.

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