View from Philadelphia: Expect even more fireworks
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As the noted philosopher Scott Hartnell observed yesterday, playoff hockey "isn't rocket science."
There is some physics involved, though, in terms of velocity and mass and impact. There also is more than a little bit of sociology, as the NHL finds itself in a transition game between the Bad Old Neanderthal Days and the ideal of a physical but fluid collision (but not violent) sport.
So much of the tension in this suddenly interesting series between the Philadelphia Flyers and the Penguins is the result of this conflict. The league's on-ice officials are mandated to call penalties for any stickwork above the waist or any clutching or grabbing that impedes the flow of the game. Like most team sports, hockey has been trying to legislate more offense into its game.
Meanwhile, fans still like the rough stuff and fisticuffs, what Hartnell calls the "festivities" that go on after the whistles and away from the puck. As the Flyers and Penguins prepared for Game 4 tonight at the Wachovia Center, much of the talk was about where the lines are drawn and what happens when those lines get crossed.
The Flyers were oddly matter-of-fact about their perception that Penguins forward Chris Kunitz was on a search-and-destroy mission with Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen in his sights. Kunitz injured Timonen on the first shift of the series, then took a run at him in Game 3 that was, to be generous, very close to crossing the line.
"He's not trying to get the puck there," Flyers coach John Stevens said. "He's trying to hit him to hurt him. Even if it's a good hit, your team should be able to respond. You're trying to hurt him. That's hockey. That's playoff hockey. Emotions run high. That's why I feel the game has a way of policing itself."
In this case, Hartnell tracked down Kunitz, got his attention and the two fought near center ice. A day later, Hartnell was praising Kunitz for the whole exchange.
"You can say whatever you want about the hit," Hartnell said, "but [Kunitz] showed some guts and class dropping the mitts. I just wanted to get there and let him know it's not going to be taken lightly, hitting our best players."
Flyers captain Mike Richards had the same basic reaction. The Penguins clearly decided to take shots at Timonen. That's a legitimate strategy in a playoff series. Timonen was missing when the Penguins eliminated the Flyers in five games last year. He's a key player in this series.
"That's probably our strategy for [Sergei] Gonchar and for [Sidney] Crosby and [Evgeni] Malkin," Richards said. "Every chance I get, I try to hit Malkin, I'm trying to hit Crosby and I'm taking runs at Gonchar, too. It's playoff hockey."
Off their game is one thing. Out of the game is another. That's the issue here. Kunitz lined up Timonen like Brian Dawkins blitzing a quarterback.
"You can't let, over an 82-game season, players run like that at your best players or you won't have any best players at the end of the year," Stevens said.
So what about the target? How did Timonen see the hit? He declined to classify it as clean or dirty, to say whether it should have been a penalty or subject to review by the league office. But he did agree with Stevens that the intent was to injure.
"You could tell that for sure," Timonen said. "I didn't have the puck. It was in the corner. So if they're going into the game trying to hurt me, that's fine. I don't really care. And hopefully we can do the same things for them [tonight]."
One thing is certain. The tension is building between two teams that were bitter rivals before this series even started. This isn't rocket science, but there will almost certainly be some more fireworks before it's over.
First Published April 21, 2009 12:00 am