Pens' bitter rivals, the Flyers, next
Marian Hossa is congratulated by teammates Pascal Dupuis and Kris Letang after scoring the winning goal in overtime to beat the Rangers, 3-2, and win the series for the Penguins yesterday at Mellon Arena.
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They had to work overtime after blowing a two-goal lead, but the Penguins have eliminated the Rangers and are moving on to face their bitter rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers, in the next round of the NHL playoffs.
That means the road to the Stanley Cup finals leads through Pennsylvania, and it's guaranteed to be a bumpy ride.
While teams normally build up a dislike for their opponent over the course of a playoff series, the animosity already exists between two teams who entered the league as expansion clubs in 1967. Think of the Daniel Day-Lewis film "There Will Be Blood," and at the very least, parental guidance is recommended for viewers.
"If you want a rivalry, there's one right there," said Sidney Crosby. "As players, we know that the playoffs are always intense, but it throws some spice into it when it's Pittsburgh-Philadelphia."
The Penguins will have home ice advantage in the Eastern Conference finals, and the first two games will be at the Mellon Arena, beginning some time this week. In the three previous times the two teams have met in the playoffs, the Flyers have won all three, including a round in 2000 after the Penguins won the first two games in Philadelphia.
But first things first.
Marian Hossa, acquired in a big transaction at the trading deadline, paid some big dividends in the deciding game. Not only did he score the first goal of the game, he buried a shot in overtime to send a sellout home crowd into high-decibel delirium.
"We're going to enjoy this, have a day off, and then we're going back to work to get ready for the next opponent," said Mr. Hossa. "I'm just glad we won the hockey game and we're going to the next round. It's a great feeling."
The Rangers had scored twice in an 82-second span of the third period to force a tie and killed off a penalty at the end of regulation that carried into the extra period, but they couldn't avoid elimination.
"We were facing a very good hockey club," said former Penguin Jaromir Jagr, who was kept off the score sheet while being charged with two minor penalties. "They have young legs. They play without fear. They play well. They didn't get tired. I thought they were going to get tired. They didn't get tired. They kept coming and kept coming."
In this year's quest for the Stanley Cup, the Penguins have won eight of nine playoff games while beating the Ottawa Senators and the Rangers. For 10 or so of the young Penguins, including goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, these are the first two NHL playoff series they have ever won. The last time the Penguins won a series at home was against the Washington Capitals in 2001.
The 17,132 fans in attendance continued waving their white towels through the post-game handshake, as much in jubilation as in relief for not having to go back to Madison Square Garden for a sixth game.
The overtime win, coincidentally, came eight years after the Penguins lost 2-1, in five overtimes to the Flyers. That game started on May 4 and didn't conclude until the early hours of May 5.
A link to history is evident in the conference finals. It was 250 years ago that an army of British soldiers and colonial militia, the original homeland security, cut a road from Philadelphia to what is now the site of Pittsburgh to evict the French from Fort Duquesne. The Penguins have been wearing "250" emblems on their jerseys all season in honor of Pittsburgh's birthday.
If the two cities are Keystone cousins, it should remembered that family squabbles are the most intense. When William Penn founded the colony of Penn's Woods and established the City of Brotherly Love, his Society of Friends, or Quakers, could not have imagined how a hockey rivalry could become so physical and emotionally charged on both ends of the commonwealth.
The two cities have much in common. During the Democratic presidential primary, both urban centers favored Barack Obama, but Hillary Rodham Clinton garnered more votes in outlying areas to win the state.
The two cities are separated by the Susquehanna River, a mountain range and a common language. For example, a soft drink in Philadelphia is a soda, and in Pittsburgh, it's pop. Philadelphia has the Liberty Bell; Pittsburgh has the Liberty Tubes.
In his first three trips to the Pittsburgh area, George Washington nearly drowned, was forced to surrender in his first battle with the French and was on the losing end of another battle. After all of that seasoning, he was named commander in chief of the American Army by the Continental Congress meeting in 1776 in, yep, Philadelphia.
The two cities both fielded franchises in the National Football League in 1933, and their respective owners, Art Rooney and Bert Bell, were such friends that the two teams merged in 1943 as the Steagles to remain viable despite a manpower shortage during World War II. Such a partnership between the two hockey teams would be unthinkable.
On Oct. 19, 1967, the Flyers won their first game in Philadelphia, 1-0 over the Penguins. If that was first blood in a sporting sense, there has been much bad blood since. The Flyers quickly evolved into the Broad Street Bullies who won two Stanley Cup titles under coach Fred Shero, whose son, Ray, is now the general manager of the Penguins.
The Flyers have a huge overall lead in games between the two clubs -- 129-76-31 -- and once went 15 years without losing at home to Pittsburgh. But the Penguins have also won two Stanley Cups and the rivalry is as hot as ever.
Consider a Dec. 11 game this season in Philadelphia -- an 8-2 Flyers win -- in which there was a fight 20 seconds into the game, the penalty minutes piled up and the post-game insults included allegations of piling on.
Or go back to Crosby's rookie season. In a game in Philadelphia, he had his lip split and three teeth loosened by Philadelphia defenseman Derian Hatcher, but after being stitched up, he scored the winning goal in overtime, only to have the Flyers accuse him of diving.
If the Penguins had won the final regular season game -- a 2-0 loss in Philadelphia -- the Penguins and Flyers would have been opponents in the first round of the playoffs. Even though NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said there is no evidence the Penguins tanked that game, the feeling persists in Philadelphia and some other quarters that the Penguins chose to take an easier road in the playoffs. Perhaps it is destiny that they meet to settle things.
"It should be a competitive, chippy series," said defenseman Brooks Orpik.
One of Philadelphia's best players in this year's playoffs is R.J. Umberger of Plum. He will be renewing acquaintances with Ryan Malone, a Pittsburgh native who plies his trade with the Penguins.
"It's going to be a battle," Mr. Malone said of the upcoming series. "We've worked hard to get where we are now. Why not play them and have this big rivalry? I think it's going to be great for the fans."
But not for the squeamish.
First Published May 5, 2008 12:00 am