Flyers vs. Penguins: Thrill is gone
Flyers win in Pittsburgh again but the rivalry has lost its intensity for now.
PITTSBURGH - The man in charge of putting together the NHL's scheduling matrix must have been cheered last June, when this year's slate was finally released.
Finding a way then to get the Flyers and Penguins to collide twice on national broadcasts in the penultimate week of the regular season? Brilliant.
Today? Not so much, with the Flyers set to miss the Stanley Cup playoffs for the third time in the last two decades.
Turns out, bad blood alone isn't enough to keep the hatred circulating in what was the NHL's best rivalry. You really do need the battle to actually mean something to keep the Keystone State Cold War alive.
With the Flyers' 4-1 thumping of the Penguins Wednesday night, we were left simply to wonder what might have been, what might have played out had the game actually meant something.
Pittsburgh was playing without Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang. Their playoff spot is assured, their opponent (the Islanders) likely already determined. The game was so much of a nonfactor that Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford shrugged and iced a lineup with just five defensemen (and 19 players) anyway.
The 18,664 paying customers yearned for more - and not just out of the home team. The Flyers earned their first road win since Feb. 15, snapping their second nine-game road losing streak of the season.
Ho-hum. Just about the only salacious moment was a pane of glass accidentally falling out after a Chris Kunitz hit on Nick Schultz. It barely elicited a roar.
The Flyers are 13-2-1 at Consol Energy Center since Mario Lemieux christened the new barn by pouring melted Igloo ice at the faceoff circle minutes before facing the Flyers on opening night on Oct. 7, 2010.
What has followed in the 4 calendar years between these two teams has been nothing short of ridiculous, hockey on steroids. The memories - Scott Hartnell motioning a classic Hulkamania pose at a Penguins fan behind the bench dressed as Hulk Hogan - seem so fresh.
Remember when "Knock, Knock" was the locker-room anthem that led the Flyers on what appeared to be a magical playoff run when they ousted the Penguins in 2012?
Or how about when Peter Laviolette went toe-to-toe with Tony Granato and Dan Bylsma atop the benches to serve as the appetizer for that series? Neither Laviolette nor Bylsma are coaching the teams anymore. Craig Berube was the man yanking at Laviolette's sleeve, and now he's slowly making his way out the door, too. That was 3 short years ago.
Jake Voracek called that epic first-round series the best hockey he's ever witnessed.
"One hundred percent, that series 3 years ago," Voracek said yesterday. "Personally, that Game 1 overtime goal, that's what's stuck in my head the most. I think to watch the way we played, the way we battled, how big the emotions were in that series . . . I think that was one of the best series to watch. One hundred percent."
What about Claude Giroux's unforgettable, series-clinching shift to start Game 6? He throttled Sidney Crosby, then shelved Marc-Andre Fleury, earning him the obnoxious title from Laviolette as the "best player in the world."
"That series, all the games were pretty intense," Giroux said. "There was a lot of fighting, a lot of scoring, a lot of hitting. How long ago was it and everybody is still talking about that one series? That's the reason you play hockey, is to have those kind of games."
The truth is, knocking off the Penguins that year - before going out in five games without so much as a whimper against New Jersey - set the Flyers back. It provided a bit of false hope, prodding their general manager to load up on "win-now" contracts.
Now, the Flyers and Penguins seem to be heading in different directions - both this season and in the future. Pittsburgh is gasping on that win-now attitude. Crosby and Malkin are only getting older; Letang is as injury-prone as ever. The Flyers, meanwhile, are clearly gearing up for a longer run 2 or 3 years from now, once their defensive prospects mature.
Somehow, the Flyers now have their fourth win streak of seven games or more against the Penguins since these two teams first met on Oct. 19, 1967. It's fair to wonder if January's circus-like win over the Pens was the last of its kind - because a methodical and legitimate Flyers win over Pittsburgh just doesn't have the same wonderful malice.
"Maybe these teams don't like each other much," Brayden Schenn said. "We have them again on Sunday. I'm sure they're not going to like this one."
NBC analyst Mike Milbury coincidentally railed on two of the Flyers' goal scorers before the game, saying they weren't very good players. Milbury, the former Islanders GM, said Vinny Lecavalier should retire, take the money and open up a restaurant. Lecavalier snapped a 27-game goal drought. Brayden Schenn ended up posting his fourth two-goal game of the season after Milbury ragged on both Brayden and his injured older brother, Luke . . . Carlo Colaiacovo collected his first goal as a Flyer . . . The Flyers' all-time power-play rate at Consol Energy Center (16 games) is north of 33 percent . . . Sidney Crosby scored his 300th career goal to open the scoring, his first goal in six games against the Flyers, dating back to Nov. 12, 2013.