Young bucks driven by intensity of clashes at Wachovia Center
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For Penguins center Evgeni Malkin, being indoctrinated to the Penguins-Philadelphia Flyers rivalry came in big games and little pings on his head.
It was early in his NHL career. The Russian star spoke little English and probably couldn't locate Philadelphia on a map. But he knew what an insult it was to have Flyers fans at Wachovia Center throw popcorn on him while he sat on the visitors' bench.
That used to tick off Malkin. Yesterday, after practice at Southpointe, the memory made him laugh.
"I'm ready," he said. "I have a helmet."
One he probably will know better than to remove tonight when the teams clash in a rematch 48 hours after the Penguins blasted the Flyers, 6-1, at Mellon Arena in a game that saw three fights within 16 seconds in the first period before Philadelphia succumbed.
- Matchup: Penguins vs. Flyers, 7:08 p.m. today, Wachovia Center, Philadelphia.
- TV/Radio: : FSN Pittsburgh, WXDX-FM (105.9).
- Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Brian Boucher for Flyers.
- Penguins: Are 2-0 vs. Flyers. ... C Jordan Staal has 7 points in his past 7 games. ... LW Ruslan Fedotenko has a goal in two games in a row after going 13 games with none.
- Flyers: Are on 3-11 slide. ... Leading scorer and captain Mike Richards has one point, one assist, in past 4 games. ... Are 1-11 when trailing after two periods.
- Hidden stat: The Penguins are 9-1 in games with 7:08 p.m. starts.
"They're obviously not going to be happy with the last game," Penguins center Sidney Crosby said. "They're back home. Anytime you play home-and-home, depending on how the first game goes, I think you always see a good response from the other team in the second game. We'll expect to see them playing hard and playing a solid game."
Crosby can expect a lot from the crowd, too.
Malkin, Crosby, center Jordan Staal and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, all picked first or second overall in the draft and who range in age from 21 to 25, are the young nucleus of the Stanley Cup champion club. They have come to embrace games against the Flyers -- especially those at Wachovia Center.
You know, the way hikers embrace rocks that hitch a ride in their shoes.
"You get your feet wet pretty quickly, especially with a young group," Crosby said. "My first year, you hear so much about the rivalry, then you play in it. You see it firsthand and it becomes a little more normal, even if you see a game like you did [Tuesday] night."
Crosby stifled a laugh, because everyone listening knew games against the Flyers are hardly normal for him, especially road games. His initiation into the rivalry was a hit by then-Flyer Derian Hatcher that bloodied Crosby's mouth and knocked out a few teeth. Crosby was 18. Since then, he has endured loud, vulgar chants accompanied by the Wachovia Center organist.
"You learn to get up for those games, what to expect," Crosby said.
The Flyers should know what to expect from the Penguins and their young stars, too.
Since the start of the 2006-07 season, when Staal and Malkin were rookies joining a team already graced by Fleury and Crosby, the Penguins are 25-11 against Philadelphia, including playoffs, with a 138-99 scoring edge.
"I think it's been great," said Staal, who was part of an eight-game season sweep of the Flyers as a rookie. Divisional teams only meet six times now.
"You can tell in the [dressing] room before a Philly game, it's a different feeling. It's almost more of a nervous thing. You don't want to lose to them. It kind of gives you that extra edge to be ready for them. You know it's going to be a tough game."
Staal has often been a defensive force against the Flyers and has 8 goals, 11 points in 24 career games in the rivalry. He scored twice Tuesday.
The other three young franchise players have even better numbers.
Crosby has 21 goals and 49 points in 28 games. Malkin has 15 goals and 35 points in 23 games. Fleury is 17-6 in the regular season, 25-9 overall, including two playoff series wins.
"I look forward to those games," Fleury said. "They're fun. They're intense.
"You've got fans yelling names at us and holding up the signs. That's what makes it interesting. The ambience is good."
The Flyers are floundering near the bottom of the NHL standings with 31 points in 32 games in a season that led to the firing of coach John Stevens, with Peter Laviolette stepping in, and to captain Mike Richards questioning his team's heart after the game two days earlier.
Philadelphia might be desperate, but the young Penguins core players don't plan to bend, much less break.
"The first year I was a little bit surprised. Philadelphia plays hard and tough," Malkin said. "Every game for Philly, there's a couple fights. Now I'm ready. I know how to play, and I know how that team plays."
And the games the Flyers' fans play. In fact, Crosby said, there's only one way the crowd there could throw the Penguins a curveball.
"If it's any quieter or any different," Crosby said, "that's not really what I know."
First Published December 17, 2009 12:00 am