Over the course of their respective 50 seasons of existence, the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins have evolved into arguably each team's most hated rival. It wasn't always that way, and the intensity of the rivalry has periodically toned down only to eventually reignite, but for the balance of the last 28 years, the Flyers-Penguins rivalry has been among the fiercest in the National Hockey League.
"It was always easy to get up for games against the Penguins," Danny Briere said. "This is why you play hockey: it's fun and exciting. These were tough, emotional, competitive physical games and we really wanted to beat those guys. The atmosphere was incredible. The fans really got into it. Just special games, especially in the playoffs."
Judged solely in terms of Stanley Cup championships, the Penguins have a 4-2 lead on the Flyers and are the league's current defending champions. However, judged in terms of overall success during the half century since the NHL announced the addition of six new teams for the 1967-68 season, their subsequent head-to-head meetings and consistent franchise stability, the Flyers have a huge advantage.
While every franchise experiences highs and lows, viewed over a 50-year time frame, the Penguins have had more lows (including periods in the early 1980s and early 2000s in which the team's continued operation in Pittsburgh was in jeopardy) than the Flyers. On the flip side, the Penguins have four Stanley Cup banners to show for emerging from their struggles and a stable, healthy franchise today.
For the Flyers, even in the absence of Stanley Cup championships since 1975, the bottom line of franchise history is quite impressive in its accomplishments and consistency:
- In the years since the Flyers joined the NHL for the 1967-68 season, the team has reached the Stanley Cup Final eight times (1973-74, 1974-75, 1975-76, 1979-80, 1984-85, 1986-87, 1996-97 and 2009-10). Among all NHL teams, only Montreal (11) and Boston (9) have gone to the Final more times in the same span
- The Flyers have also reached the semifinal/conference final an additional eight times for a total of 16 seasons of either playing for the Cup or being among the four final teams left standing.
- Even counting only the years since the last Cup championship in 1975, no team in the NHL has reached at least the playoff semifinals more times than the Flyers (13).
- As for regular seasons, dating from the same period, only Montreal has a higher regular season percentage of points earned.
- Dating back to 1995 through the 2015-16 season, the Flyers have gone 18-for-21 in reaching the playoffs. On a leaguewide basis, only Detroit (21-for-21) has exceeded that total for the same time period.
The origins of the Flyers-Penguins rivalry can be traced to the very first home game in Philadelphia's franchise history.
On Oct. 19, 1967, goaltender Doug Favell blanked the Penguins on 21 shots as the Flyers prevailed, 1-0, at the Spectrum. Flyers forward Bill Sutherland, a longtime minor league player who was initially denied entrance to the building because a security guard believed he looked too old to be a professional athlete, scored the game's only goal.
Later that season, the first player-for-player trade in Flyers' franchise history was made with Pittsburgh. On Feb. 27, 1968, the Flyers traded Wayne Hicks to the Penguins for Art Stratton.
On an all-time basis, the Flyers hold a significant head-to-head edge on the Penguins. To date, the Flyers enjoy 151-90-7 record against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the regular season. The teams also played to 30 ties before the creation of the shootout in 2005.
Broken down further, the Flyers have a 96-3-1-4 home record with five ties against the Penguins. In Pittsburgh, the Flyers are 55-99-3 with 22 ties. Spanning all regular season meetings to date, the Flyers have scored 1,001 goals against the Penguins. Pittsburgh has scored 851.
Historically, much of the misery the Flyers inflicted on Pittsburgh came during a 42-game unbeaten streak (39 wins, three ties) at the Spectrum. The streak lasted for nearly 15 years, dating from February 7, 1974 to February 2, 1989.
"We were fortunate in some of those games, no doubt. For us, and this was regardless of which team were playing against, the biggest thing is that we had a clearly defined identity as a team, a commitment to one another and an approach to preparation that was conducive to winning. We had talented players but we were more than the sum of our parts," recalls former Flyers captain Dave Poulin.
From the Broad Street Bullies era through the Mike Keenan years, the Flyers level of dominance over Pittsburgh was staggering. For example, Hockey of Hall goaltender Bernie Parent recorded 50 career regular season shutouts (six in playoffs) during his Flyers career. Nine came at the expense of the Penguins.
Since that time, the teams have traded off momentum.
It was not until after the Penguins drafted Mario Lemieux to lift the franchise from some very dark and tenuous times and then continued to build the nucleus that won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1990-91 and 1991-92 that the rivalry with the Flyers started to take off.
The flash point was the spring of 1989 in the first playoff series between the teams. The Flyers ultimately defeated Pittsburgh in seven games with backup goaltender Ken Wregget stepping in late in the series for an injured Ron Hextall.
In fact, regardless of the teams involving, no true rivalry is possible until the clubs meet in the playoffs. After their run to the 1989 Wales Conference Finals, the Flyers experienced a five-season lean period in which they missed the playoffs each year. Now the Penguins were on top of the NHL.
The Penguins second run to the Stanley Cup was aided by a blockbuster trade with the Flyers. On Feb. 19, 1992: Flyers trade team captain Rick Tocchet, defenseman Kjell Samuelsson, and goalie Wregget to the Penguins for fast-emerging young star Mark Recchi, Brian Benning and a 1992 first-round draft pick (Jason Bowen).
As the Flyers continued to rebuild, acquiring Eric Lindros, trading Recchi in 1995 in a deal that brought John LeClair and Eric Desjardins over from Montreal, and seeing young players such as Rod Brind'Amour and Mikael Renberg blossom, Philly and Pittsburgh were finally both contenders at the same time.
Over the last 21 years, the Flyers and Penguins have met in the playoffs five times. Philadelphia prevailed in 1997, 2000 and 2012. The Penguins beat the Flyers in the 2008 Eastern Conference Finals before losing to Detroit in the Stanley Cup Final and then prevailed again in a harder-fought 2009 Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series en route to defeating Detroit for the Cup.
There were many thrilling moments for both teams during that time span. From a Flyers-centric perspective, the biggest highlights included Keith Primeau's game-winning goal that ended Game 4 of the 2000 Eastern Conference Semifinals in quintuple overtime, rookie defenseman Andy Delmore's hat trick in the next game, the Flyers' staging multi-goal comebacks in Games One and Two of the 2012 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, and the battles between Claude Giroux and Sidney Crosby that culminated with Giroux rocking Crosby with a big hit and then scoring a goal on the opening shift of the Flyers' series-clinching win in Game Six.
As much enmity as there has been over the years between the teams and especially their respective fanbases, there has also been an undercurrent of hard-earned respect among the players.
"To me, rivalry also means respect. You know there's good players on both sides," said ex-Penguin Maxime Talbot in 2012, upon switching sides to sign with the Flyers.
Indeed, there have been many players even apart from Talbot, Tocchet, Recchi and Kjell Samuelsson who had the opportunity to be part of the rivalry from both the western and southeastern Pennsylvania perspectives.
Others include 50th Anniversary Game Flyers forward Orest Kindrachuk and Penguins Alumni members Jeff Chychrun, Gordie Roberts, Mike Bullard and Mitch Lamoureux. Likewise, Dave "the Hammer" Schultz, the late Ross Lonsberry, Tom Bladon, Hockey Hall of Fame defenseman Paul Coffey, future Hall of Famer Jaromir Jagr, Petr Nevded, inaugural Flyers captain Lou Angotti, Flyers Hall of Fame defenseman and captain Ed Van Impe and goalie Bobby Taylor are just some of the players who suited up for both the Flyers and Penguins and different junctures of their career.