Penguins, Hurricanes lack hatred -- for now

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During the first round, all it took was a glance at the crest on opponents' sweaters.

Round 2 was pretty much the same. And, if the logo on the front of the jersey didn't do it, a few of the nameplates on the back surely did.

But that won't necessarily be the case when the Penguins and Carolina meet in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final at 7:38 p.m. tomorrow at Mellon Arena.

Not immediately, anyway, for this is not one of those rivalries in which participants' teeth begin grinding at the very thought of the other team.

That doesn't mean passions won't rise quickly -- with sticks and elbows to follow -- once the series begins. For now, though, emotions haven't been rubbed raw and the teams are lobbing nothing more nasty than compliments at one another.

The sneers and slurs will have to wait a while.

"We had a couple of good competitive games with them during the regular season," Penguins defenseman Rob Scuderi said. "But certainly, it's not the natural hatred you have for some of the other teams."

Team like, oh, Philadelphia, which the Penguins dispatched in six games in the opening round. And Washington, which they eliminated in seven in the second.

There has been hostility between the Penguins and Flyers almost since the franchises entered the NHL in the 1967 expansion, although it has peaked in the past few years, and the competition between Sidney Crosby and Capitals left winger Alex Ovechkin has assured that the rivalry between the Penguins and Washington will remain at a rolling boil for years to come.

The closest thing to a ready-made villain on either team in the East final, though, is Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik, whose hit from behind on Carolina winger Erik Cole three years ago broke two vertebrae in Cole's neck.

Orpik was suspended for three games and the two fought, at Cole's behest, Feb. 2, 2008. That scuffle might have closed out the incident for those involved -- "It's all behind me," Orpik said. "I don't know if it's all behind him" -- but not for the crowd at the RBC Center in Raleigh, N.C., which boos Orpik vigorously every time he touches the puck.

(Which, given the nature of his game, is not all that often, or for all that long.) Penguins left winger Matt Cooke estimates that it should take about 20 minutes for the teams to begin developing a serious dislike for each other, and that seems like a reasonable prediction.

Sure, the Penguins and Hurricanes practically are leaking respect for one another today, but by mid-week, they likely will be willing to go at each other with switchblades and broken bottles.

"That feeling isn't there right off the bat," Penguins center Jordan Staal said. "But I guarantee you, once it gets to the first game, it always comes in. It's always part of every series, the hatred and the will to win."

The Penguins and Hurricanes never have met in the playoffs and a few months ago, there was no reason to think it would happen in 2009, either. Both teams saw fit to change coaches in the season, and neither was guaranteed a spot in the playoffs for much of the year.

"It's kind of funny how it's come down to the two of us," Orpik said.

"I don't think anyone would have predicted us [to meet] halfway through the year, or maybe even at the beginning of the playoffs."

The Penguins ended up with the No. 4 seed in the East, and the Hurricanes sixth.

At first blush, neither seemed like a serious candidate to advance this far, but the reality is that both played as well as anyone -- and a lot better than most -- down the stretch.

"From the All-Star break on, I think they had the best record in the league," Orpik said. "They were probably playing just as well as we were. Going into the playoffs, everyone was saying, 'Those are the two teams you don't want to play.' "

The Flyers, Capitals, Devils and Bruins had to, and their seasons ended. One of these clubs will be gone no later than June 2, as well, and long before that, the teams will be co-existing like a couple of furry little animals.

Something along the lines of, oh, a badger with a toothache and a wolverine nursing a serious hangover.

"It's the playoffs," Scuderi said. "After about one game, you start to get a feel for what the game's going to be like and who you're playing against, and, eventually, it's only a matter of time."


Dave Molinari can be reached at dmolinari@post-gazette.com .


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