Not five minutes after he was rightly presented the Edward J. DeBartolo Community Service Award in an earnest pregame ceremony, Penguins forward Georges Laraque was spotted performing the perceptually vital public service known as punching the nearest Flyer in the head.
The chosen Philadelphian was the estimable Riley Cote, with whom Laraque had in this long hockey season combined for 331 penalty minutes as of the opening bell, or rather faceoff, of last night's pivotal final home game.
Laraque and Cote exchanged a series of looping lefts at center ice without apparent provocation by either party, but I suspect it was essentially a matter of convenience.
Whereas the Penguins were within 60 punishing minutes of their first division title in 10 years, and whereas the Flyers seemed as likely a playoff opponent as any among the Eastern Conference rogue's gallery, there was clearly no reason to delay any further the tangible establishment of playoff hockey's mandatory "healthy dislike," the inevitable animosity created when teams keep showing up in the same rink over the course of a week or two.
Cote probably disliked it rather healthily when one of Laraque's final lefts landed with enough vinegar to send his helmet skidding down the ice like a discarded bucket. That sent both to the penalty box for five minutes, but was only the preliminary bout on a long undercard of frightfully physical play a week before the playoffs even begin.
"Yeah," Penguins center Jordan Staal said about the likelihood about a looming series' fistic potential. "It oughta be a show."
Philadelphia's Mike Knuble re-established the tone by trying to drive Jarkko Ruutu through the end boards onto Centre Avenue, and after a brief exchange of -- what's this? -- actual hockey, in which Sergei Gonchar's power-play whistler rubbed out Scott Hartnell's goal, the Flyers' Mike Richards ripped Sidney Crosby's helmet off in traffic in front of the Philadelphia net.
Richards did no actual damage other than incensing Sid's teammates, which only raised the temperature toward intolerance, especially when Jeff Carter slipped a second Flyers goal past Marc-Andre Fleury at 13:13 of the first period. Immediately, Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik confronted Joffrey Lupul, who exchanged swings until Orpik wrestled him to the deck like some substantial rodeo animal. Two minutes later, Crosby and Lasse Kukkonen were sent to the box for roughing.
And the first period wasn't over.
The second started even hotter, with giant Flyers defenseman Braydon Coburn putting Petr Sykora on his wallet near the Penguins' bench, but that was a ballet compared to what Gonchar and Hartnell produced in the following minutes. Gonchar, whose reputation for spirited banging appears on his lengthy hockey resume somewhere south of taxidermy, laid Hartnell out like carpet in the offensive zone. Seconds later, Hartnell chased Gonchar the length of the ice, caught him against the end boards, tumbled to the ice, and got a skate to the bridge of the nose for all his trouble.
The Flyers' bench went crazy, to no evident impact.
After Crosby found himself in a Coburn bear hug, Coburn and Hartnell went to the box together. Nineteen seconds later, Crosby buried Gonchar's cross-ice pass for a 2-2 tie and a useful reminder, one would think, that you can't keep taking penalties without consequence.
It was lost on Hartnell apparently, who dropped Orpik to the ice behind the Penguins' net and appeared to be attempting some kind of invasive surgery in the guise of trying to fish the puck from beneath the Penguins' defender. They both got to their feet and punched each other in the head.
Sensing any trends?
When James Dowd went off for hooking later in the period, Evgeni Malkin made the Flyers pay through the metaphorical nose rather than any actual nose, beating Martin Biron for a 3-2 Pittsburgh lead.
"This is a winnable hockey game," Flyers coach John Stevens was preaching in Philadelphia's dressing room prior to the third period. "We're down a goal, let's get out there and better use our energy between the whistles and not worry about the calls that are made or not made and use our energy to win the game."
But the Flyers' energy thereafter mostly produced more of the same.
Gene Collier can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1283.