Playoff race adds juice to Penguins-Flyers rivalry
March 19, 2016 12:00 AM
Phil Kessel, second from left, celebrates a goal with Penguins teammates Jan. 21 against the Flyers at Consol Energy Center.
By Dave Molinari / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
It is, under normal circumstances, a lot like sticking two scorpions in a bottle.
Maybe two rattlesnakes in a sack.
Or two wolverines in a cage. A small cage.
Except perhaps a bit nastier. OK, a lot nastier.
When the Penguins and Flyers are forced to share a slab of ice, as they will today at Wells Fargo Center, the only things higher than the intensity and emotion tend to be elbows and sticks.
“It’s quite the rivalry,” Penguins center Sidney Crosby said Friday.
That’s true — most of the time. But Crosby’s assessment probably qualifies as an understatement, given what’s at stake when the Penguins face the Flyers three times in their final 12 regular-season games.
The Penguins, 38-24-8 after 70 games, have a tenuous grip on the first wild-card playoff berth in the Eastern Conference. They are three points ahead of Detroit, which has played 71 games, and four in front of Philadelphia, which has played 69.
Beat the Flyers today — especially if they can do it in regulation — and the Penguins could give themselves some breathing room. Lose — particularly if they wouldn’t get a point by forcing overtime — and the Flyers could catch the Penguins when Philadelphia’s game-in-hand comes into play.
“We know the situation,” Penguins defenseman Ian Cole said. “We know the rivalry factor and, obviously, the playoff factor on top of that kind of exponentially makes that more of a heated game.”
Almost as hot, perhaps, as the Flyers have been in recent weeks. They are on an 8-1-1 roll, a dramatic upgrade from their 6-5-9 record in the first 20 games of the season.
Although there was a time when Philadelphia seemed more likely to get a prime spot in the NHL draft lottery than a playoff berth, the Penguins insist they aren’t surprised the Flyers are in the postseason mix.
“All it takes is one really big winning streak, and they’ve shown that they’ve been able to string some wins together,” forward Eric Fehr said. “You have to have a big winning streak, then don’t lose two in a row very often, and you’re going to be there. And that’s what that team has done.”
That’s a credit to the work of first-year coach Dave Hakstol, but the infusion of talent provided by defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere, a serious rookie of the year candidate, certainly hasn’t hurt.
He has been especially valuable on the Flyers’ power play, a unit that traditionally torments the Penguins. It converted five of 17 chances against the Penguins in 2014-15 and was 3-for-6 in a 4-3 Penguins victory Jan. 21 at Consol Energy Center.
The Penguins’ penalty-killing problems against Philadelphia have been compounded in recent seasons by a penchant for taking unnecessary penalties, often because they’ve allowed Flyers jabs — literal and verbal — to get to them.
“They have those guys who are irritating players,” said Cole, who added that the Penguins have to “not let those slashes or words or maybe a late punch after the whistle get the best of us.”
Regardless of today’s outcome, the playoff picture might not become clear until after the regular-season finale, which the Penguins will play April 9 in Philadelphia.
For the moment, though, they have the upper hand on the Flyers and Detroit.
“You fight all year to get into position and you want to be in control of your own destiny,” Fehr said. “And that’s what we have right now.”
Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com and Twitter @MolinariPG.
Who: Penguins at Philadelphia Flyers.
When, where: 1:08 p.m. today, Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia.
Noteworthy: Penguins seeking third away victory in row, which would be their longest such streak since winning five consecutive on road Oct. 24-Nov. 6. … Flyers are 19-9-7 at home, where they have won six of past seven. … Penguins C Sidney Crosby has 32 goals, 46 assists in 53 career games against Philadelphia. … Flyers C Sean Couturier does not have goal in his past 17 games. … Penguins LW Chris Kunitz has team-best plus-minus rating of plus-11 on road. … Philadelphia’s home power play is one of NHL’s worst, with success rate of 17.1 percent.
Did you know? Four of Flyers rookie D Shayne Gostisbehere’s 16 goals have been overtime winners.
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