PHILADELPHIA -- Evgeni Malkin let it be known a while back that he doesn't really care for playing in the City of Brotherly Love.
Not so much because the Penguins failed to win a game at the Wachovia Center this season, or because Philadelphia tries to take any particular liberties with him, as the Flyers have been accused of doing with opposing players once or twice during their 41 seasons in the National Hockey League.
No, Malkin said, the problem is the popcorn. Not because the stuff available at the concession stands is any more stale or chewy than the pseudo-Styrofoam offered in most arenas, but because some fans are more inclined to toss it onto the visiting team's bench than down their throats.
He might have a valid point, but in a city that celebrates the hostility of its sports fans -- remember, these are the folks who, a generation or so ago, generated national headlines by booing Santa Claus -- chucking popcorn hardly seems to constitute an act of wanton violence.
- Matchup: Philadelphia Flyers at Penguins, 7:38 p.m. today, Wachovia Center.
- Series: Penguins, 2-0.
- TV, radio: Versus; WXDX-FM (105.9).
- Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Martin Biron for Flyers.
- Penguins: Won first three games in each of their previous two series. ... LW Ryan Malone does not have goal in past four games. ... Have allowed more than 30 shots four times in 11 postseason games.
- Flyers: Were 4-1 at Wachovia Center in first two rounds. ... C Mike Richards has scored three of Philadelphia's four goals in series. ... Have been outscored, 16-11, in third period in the playoffs.
- Hidden stat: Penguins have scored first in eight of their 11 playoff games.
"[Malkin] is from Russia," linemate Ryan Malone said yesterday. "I don't know what they have over there, but popcorn's not that big of a deal. Most of us played some type of junior hockey, where we've seen worse. Where we've had beers dumped on us."
Popcorn, of course, isn't the only thing that will be hurled at the Penguins before, during and after Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final against the Flyers at 7:38 p.m. today. Taunts and insults will, as usual, pour down from the upper reaches of the Wachovia Center, and a few other objects -- edible or otherwise -- figure to sail in their direction, as well.
The idea is to distract, even intimidate, them and, given the Penguins' 0-4 record in 2007-08, it's hard to see a built-in flaw in the formula. The only catch is, rather than being unnerved by the abuse -- regardless of the precise form it takes -- most of the Penguins insist they actually enjoy the working conditions at Wachovia Center.
"I wouldn't say it's a tough place to play," defenseman Rob Scuderi said. "They're obviously pretty passionate about their team, pretty passionate about the game.
"It makes it fun to go in there, that the fans are into it. It's more fun playing there than it would be in a place where the seats aren't filled and the fans aren't into it."
Scuderi is one of the guys who receives only the standard-issue mistreatment. Sidney Crosby is the one who's treated like he had been dropped off in the midst of 20,000 Dawg Pound residents who have gone off their medication.
"I would say it's a pretty tough place to play," Crosby said. "But at the same time, in the playoffs it makes for a great atmosphere."
He declined to specify the worst thing that has been said or done to him -- at least by anyone who didn't break three of his teeth, as Derian Hatcher did with a high stick on Crosby's first visit -- but that might just mean there were too many possibilities to sift through on short notice.
"I can't really name one thing," Crosby said. "They're just a tough crowd. They're not afraid to say anything. You know, they're just very vocal. A vocal group."
For the record, he wasn't talking about the O'Jays.
What hasn't seemed to register with the Wachovia Center crowd is that his productivity seems to rise in conjunction with the amount of grief he receives, a point he made for the first time when he scored the overtime winner in the game Hatcher did his impromptu dental work.
Since then, he has treated the Flyers like his personal pinata more than a few times, putting up 16 goals and 21 assists in 20 regular-season games and two goals and an assist in the first two games of this series, even though he's operating at less than 100 percent because of the lingering effects of a high ankle sprain.
So Crosby will absorb some high-decibel taunting tonight and, if precedent holds, probably answer by setting up and/or scoring a few goals. It's a trade-off he, and his teammates, won't mind making.
That assumes they're not too tired to notice, because security personnel at whatever hotel they happen to be staying in rarely manages to prevent pranksters from setting off fire alarms in the middle of the night.
"We've had the fire alarm pulled more than a few times," Scuderi said. "It seems to happen, more often than not."
Sure, that's annoying, but it could be worse. And eventually it will be, if someone figures out how to rig a hotel sprinkler system so it sprays popcorn.
Dave Molinari can be reached at DWMolinari@Yahoo.com . First Published May 13, 2008 4:00 AM