Penguins, Flyers have a history

There's a lot of history between the Penguins and Flyers. Most of it favors Philadelphia. A new chapter begins tonight

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The first time they met, they were expansion siblings playing the first hockey game in the Spectrum. The Philadelphia Flyers beat the Penguins without incident, 1-0, on a goal by Bill (Suds) Sutherland and a shutout by Doug Favell that October night in 1967, as witnessed by only 7,812 fans.

Forty-one years later, with four Stanley Cup titles and a list of grievances, real or perceived, between them, the two teams from opposite ends of the commonwealth are involved in the biggest playoff series between them, with the winner, or more accurately the survivor, earning the right to compete for the NHL championship. The whole hockey world will be watching.

"These teams have such a history," said Bill Clement, who played on the Flyers' title teams and is now a hockey analyst, "but five minutes after they drop the puck, none of it matters. They'll be writing new history."

He expects a "gladiator-type" series with Sherwoods instead of swords, one that will have the blood boiling not only among the combatants but the fan bases.

"Players respond to fans' reactions, and fans are not compelled to show any restraint at all," he said. "The Flyers are looked on as something like the Antichrist. Everybody loves to hate the Flyers. But you have to be careful. You can end up winning a battle and losing the war."

Even if one Penguins executive opined that an appropriate setting for the faceoff would be Gettysburg, any suggestion that a series between two Keystone clubs born in the same year is akin to Athens vs. Sparta, Rome vs. Carthage, the Hatfields vs. the McCoys or the calico cat vs. the gingham dog would be folly.

That said, the road to the Cup final is like the Pennsylvania Turnpike -- a toll will be paid, and there is no EZ Pass. For all the talk that Philadelphia has Pat's cheesesteaks and Pittsburgh has Primanti Brothers, the menu item for the series is apt to be a knuckle sandwich.

For the record, Philadelphia fans are more than happy to set the record straight regarding any rivalry because the Flyers have been so dominant over the years, owning a 129-76-31 advantage and wins in all three playoffs series between the two teams. Their big rivals are, say, the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils.

But the confrontations have taken on a different tone since the lockout. A year after having the worst record in the Eastern Conference, the Penguins won all eight regular-season games against the Flyers for the first time. Then, a year after finishing with the worst record in the NHL, the Flyers won the first four meetings this season and finished with a 5-3 edge in eight edgy games.

In addition, both coaches were adversaries in the AHL, where their minor-league teams have their own history.

"I think losing eight games to them last year sparked something," said the Flyers' R.J. Umberger. "We were upset and we wanted some revenge for losing so much to them last year. And you have a lot of young guys who have been competing against each other for a long time on both sides. There's a hatred between the two teams, and, if you want to get somewhere, you have to go through each other to get there. That's just how it is."

And Umberger is a native of Plum.

From the start, the two organizations have been as different as Bobby Clarke and Mario Lemieux, two Hall of Fame captains who remained with their organizations in executive capacities.

The only owner the Flyers have known in 41 seasons is Ed Snider, whose preference for tough, gritty hockey led to the era of the Broad Street Bullies. The franchise won an NHL title within seven years of being born and is the most successful of the 1967 expansion teams.

Snider has never been reluctant in voicing his sentiments. In complimenting the job done by Penguins general manager Ray Shero, son of former Flyers coach Fred Shero, Snider said this week, "But let's face it, you get rewarded for being the worst team in the league, and Pittsburgh has all these great players for being lousy for so many years."

So many owners have come and gone for the Penguins that the owner's suite could have a revolving door. There have been as many bankruptcies as Cup titles, the first of which came in the 24th year of the franchise. The approach from the start was more piecemeal, and the team didn't have a minor-league team of its own until the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton franchise began operating in 1999, whereas the Flyers had a minor-league team from the start.

As much as it grates on Penguins fans, the history has been one-sided in favor of the Flyers. In fact, from 1974-89, the Penguins went 15 years without winning a game in Philadelphia. The streak began when Andy Brown was the last maskless goalie and didn't end until Lemieux had been around for five years.

"I graduated from high school, graduated from college, got a job, got married, got divorced, moved to San Diego, moved back to Pittsburgh, and the Penguins still hadn't beaten the Flyers in Philadelphia," Penguins vice president Tom McMillan said.

When The Streak ended on Groundhog Day in 1989, it was front page news in Pittsburgh. Radio personalities Scott Paulsen and Jim Krenn of WDVE had gone to the Spectrum that night dressed as witch doctors to lift the hex.

From the Pittsburgh point of view, a lot of the hard feelings of today stem not only from the Flyers dominance but also the way in which they won.

"We weren't the only team that got clubbed by the Flyers," said broadcaster and former Penguin Phil Bourque, "but, when we went to the Spectrum, as much as you wanted to believe you were going to win, you just knew something bad was going to happen. You had the feeling you were going to get beat up, and not just on the scoreboard. They never took their foot off the gas pedal. They kept hammering us. It wasn't enough to rub our noses in it, they grabbed by the hair on the back of our heads and shoved our faces into the pile. But those days are gone."

Hall of Fame announcer Mike Lange rates Gene Hart, the longtime voice of the Flyers, as one of the most accomplished to sit behind a microphone. But during The Streak, Hart kept a stat sheet and wasn't shy about documenting the disparity until the streak reached an improbable 0-39-3.

"When it finally ended, I didn't have to say a word," Lange said, grinning "I carried that stat sheet around with me for a long, long time, too. The Flyers, on the whole, have been so successful it's scary. It wasn't because they were lucky. They were better than us all those years."

It is noteworthy that things are different for this series. The Penguins are the higher seed and have home-ice advantage and would love to win a playoff series as much as the Flyers want to continue their own streak.

"You can feel it," Lange said. "So much has been lost in Pittsburgh over the last 25 years, it gives fans a chance to hold on to their city. Howard Cosell once said that when you play Pittsburgh, you play the entire city, and I think there's a lot of truth in that."

Or as Bourque said: "We're not the fire hydrant anymore. We're the bigger dog."

History is filled with snapshots and slap shots -- Flyers goalie Ron Hextall chasing after Rob Brown in 1989, Lemieux receiving a cancer treatment in the morning and flying to Philadelphia for a night game, Darius Kasparaitis knocking out Eric Lindros in 1998, the five-overtime epic the Flyers won on Keith Primeau's goal at Mellon Arena is 2000, players who wore both jerseys such as Orest Kindrachuk, Ed Van Impe, Dave "The Hammer" Schultz, Ron Flockhart, Kevin Stevens and John LeClair.

But there also was the game in 1997 when the Penguins were eliminated in the playoffs in what everybody thought would be Lemieux's last game. When he came out for a curtain call, Flyers' fans rose to salute an adversary with a thunderous ovation that went on and on and on.

"I still get chills thinking about," said Joe Stewart, 32, who attended that game. "It's just one of those moments you never forget. Nobody said a word. The woman next to me was wearing an old orange [Rick] Tocchet jersey, and she was just bawling."

Still, the game that set the tone for modern history came in Sidney Crosby's rookie season. He was bloodied without penalty by Derian Hatcher's stick, and, after his teeth were rearranged and his lip was stitched, he beat the Flyers in overtime on their ice.

What bothered the Penguins the most were the postgame comments of Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock, who said he hadn't noticed Crosby until the overtime as allegations of diving were insinuated.

"That's an insult," said Bourque. "When you disrespect a player like Sidney Crosby, you're disrespecting the team, the organization and the city. It was a complete slap in the face. When you do it to Sidney Crosby, you're doing it to all of us."

The newest chapter in this history will be written by two confident teams seeking the same grail.

"They have some guys who irritate you and get under your skin, and guys you'd like to rub their face in the ice sometimes. But that's just hockey. Emotions rise. You get caught up in the moment," said the Flyers' Riley Cote.

In the playoffs, it usually takes a game or two for a real dislike to develop. But not this time.

"I think we have a dislike for each other right now," said the Flyers' Mike Richards.

Game on.


Robert Dvorchak can be reached at bdvorchak@post-gazette.com .


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