Eastern Conference Final: Sparks fly early as war of words begins
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Wow. The Stanley Cup playoffs really do convince guys to take sacrifice and courage to new levels.
Witness the Penguins.
Why, just two days before the scheduled start of their Eastern Conference final against Philadelphia, management not only has declined to investigate what would be involved in forfeiting the series, but also hasn't even had its players take any special steps to enhance their bladder control.
Awfully gutsy, considering there are some who contend the mere thought of facing the Flyers in a best-of-seven is enough to make the Penguins' bodily functions run amok.
Then again, there might be another explanation. Maybe, just maybe, those bleatings, nearly all of which emanated from of the far side of the commonwealth, about them being terrified to meet the Flyers might reflect a serious disconnect from reality.
"It can't be expressed, the fear we feel," Penguins left winger Gary Roberts said yesterday, sarcasm lacing every syllable.
Roberts is a guy whose admirers would have you believe he could give Death itself a nervous breakdown with a split-second glare, so his feelings on the subject are particularly germane. Had the color drained from his face at the mention of the word "Philadelphia," that would have meant a lot, too.
The Fear Factor theory dates to the Penguins' 2-0 loss in Philadelphia the final day of the regular season, when a victory would have matched them against the Flyers in Round 1.
The Penguins sat Sidney Crosby -- who had missed 28 of the previous 34 games because of a high ankle sprain and its lingering effects, which continue to this day -- and played a thoroughly uninspired game that led to an opening-round matchup with Ottawa. Even before the final buzzer, conspiracy theorists floated the idea the Penguins intentionally lost because they wanted no part of a series with the Flyers.
"It's a good joke, that people talk about us losing the game on purpose," left winger Jarkko Ruutu said.
Perhaps, but all that was missing were eyewitness accounts that the Penguins had traveled to the Wachovia Center in black U.N. helicopters instead of a team bus.
And while the "Penguins-tanked-it" notion didn't begin in the Philadelphia locker room, at least some Flyers had no qualms about endorsing it.
Winger Riley Cote was quoted as saying, "It's almost like they threw the game," and center Jeff Carter told reporters that "maybe they're scared of us, I don't know."
Tough to misinterpret those sentiments or to see how such words could have been taken out of context.
"People can say what they want," Roberts said. "Is anybody in the NHL going to think you can purposely go out and try to lose a hockey game? I've never done it and I know we never did."
What the Penguins had done, several times, was to play poorly. It happened 13 days earlier on Long Island, too, although no one explained precisely who or what the Penguins were trying to dodge with that performance. Just as no one offered a coherent assessment of why the prospect of facing a team they had just beaten three times in a row would paralyze them with terror.
Not everyone associated with the Flyers, it should be noted, has embraced the concept of self-immolation by the Penguins. General manager Paul Holmgren made that clear a few days ago, when the Philadelphia Daily News asked if he felt they had lost that game intentionally.
"I don't think that happened,'' Holmgren said. "I thought [Flyers goalie Martin] Biron made a lot of good saves in that game. I just don't think that was the case."
Actually, Biron didn't have to make many stops that gave him a late boost in the Vezina Trophy voting, as the Penguins threw just 20 shots at him. The catch: The home team launched only 21 -- that's one more than the Penguins had -- at Marc-Andre Fleury before Mike Knuble scored into an empty net.
Hate to get bogged down in details like that, though. Or could be that the Flyers were trying to lose, so they could force the Penguins to meet them in Round 1?
That's an utterly absurd idea, obviously. One too ridiculous and demeaning to a team -- and a sport, and a league -- to be worthy of repeating.
Then again, it wouldn't have been the only one of those to come out of that game.
"We don't pick and choose who we play," Penguins right winger Georges Laraque said. "If the Flyers are the best team, we're going to end up playing them, anyway.
"We'll see what happens in the series. Then, we'll talk."
First Published May 7, 2008 12:00 am