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GREENBERG: The Rivalry

Flyers columnist goes into the heated Flyers-Pens rivalry ahead of a classic match outdoors

by Jay Greenberg @NHLFlyers / http://www.philadelphiaflyers.com

Geography sets up rivalries but playoff series build them. So, of course, after the Flyers became the first expansion team to beat an established one, the Rangers, in seven angry games in 1974, and then the two clubs met in the first or second round seven times in nine springs between 1979 and 1987, there was no other team, not even while the Islander dynasty lasted, that made Flyer skins crawl like those stinkin', season-spoiling, goody-too-shoes Blueshirts.

Even then, however, when you asked a Ranger whom he resented the most, he was at least 50-50 to say the Islanders. Later, after the Devils rose to power, there were three sets of fans in the same New York television market rooting for three different clubs, making the Flyers a fourth wheel, albeit a despicable one.

Philadelphia's more undistractably-natural rival, instantly recognized by the NHL schedule maker when he made the Penguins the opponent for the first Flyer home opener in 1967, was Pittsburgh. Unfortunately, it took even longer than the Pennsylvania Turnpike for the Penguins and Flyers to start disliking each other to the degree they do now.  

For that, there is probably more to blame than it taking 22 years for two babies from the same incubator to finally meet in a playoff series (1989), or a ho-humming, if seemingly impossible, 42 consecutive Penguin visits to the Spectrum between 1974 and 1989 without a victory,

One shared commonwealth notwithstanding, any lines drawn in the sand are a good drive away in, roughly, Harrisburg. And acute cultural differences over the kolbassa and the cheese steak notwithstanding, both go down pretty easily as any successes at the other end of the state in any sport got easier to swallow without jealousy.

The Eagles stopped playing the Steelers twice a year when Pittsburgh agreed to go to the AFC in 1970. The Phillies and Pirates won every National League East title but one between 1970 and 1980 and therefore enjoyed a delicious grudge. But thereafter neither team had any sustained success and never at each other's expense before Pittsburgh moved to the Central Division in 1994.

Thus, towards the Penguins, a Flyer diehard's attitude probably was best summed up in Casablanca, when Captain Renault asks Rick, "You despise me, don't you?' Rick replies, 'If I thought about you much, I probably would."

But after Penguins victories over the Flyers in 2008 and 2009, and a wild Philadelphia upset in 2012, we are accurately and acridly able to report that the Penguin-Flyer rivalry, which resumes Saturday night at Heinz Field, has become one of the more rancorous in sports. And that is for a lot more reasons than just Jaromir Jagr and Max Talbot coming over to the good guys in 2011 on their own free will.

"To me, the Penguins are our No. 1 rival," says Wayne Simmonds.

"When I first got to Philly (for the 2011-12 season), Pittsburgh was No. 1 and then we started to beat them so much (18-7 between 2010-11 and 2014-16, including an astounding 13 of the first 16 regular season and playoff meetings at Pittsburgh's new Consol Energy Center).

"Lately, they have gotten the better of us (in four of the last five meetings) and this year they are the defending champions and way ahead of us the standings. so it becomes a good measuring stick for us.

"Sidney (Crosby) is a more respectful player towards opponents and the officials than when he first came up. The only reason to dislike him now is that he is plays for Pittsburgh and is the best player in the league. Anytime you go up against somebody like that, you want to prove you are a good player, too and put a little more force in it.

"The Penguins are the most fun to play against. When we beat them in (six games in the first round) in 2012, our emotion level really dropped the next round against the Devils. We were out almost before we knew we were in another series.

"When we last played the Rangers in a playoff series (2014), it was hard fought, but nothing other than hockey plays happened. The Rangers don't try to agitate you and draw penalties; they just skate away. Don't get me wrong, they beat us (in seven) so I hate them too. 

"You might get different answers from different players, but I know more of us hate the Penguins the most and I'd be willing to bet the Penguins hate the Flyers most of all, too."

Peter Laviolette and Dan Bylsma no longer coach these teams, but an enduring image is Laviolette standing on the boards, screaming at the Pittsburgh coach after a late game Joe Vitale flattening of Danny Briere. Hey, the official state bird is the Ruffled Grouse. Well, actually it is the Ruffed Grouse, but they should rename in honor of this rivalry.

The Penguins have captured four Cups to the Flyers two. The Flyers have won four head-to-head series (1989, 1997, 2000, and 2012) to the Penguins' two (2008 and 2009) and own the regular series,150-89-30-8.

The first known reason for a Flyer fan to resent the Penguins came in 1972, when Greg Polis scored in the final minute at the Spectrum to forstall the Flyers clinching a playoff spot in the next-to-last game. Pittsburgh got in the next night when a long distance goal by Buffalo's Gerry Meehan with four seconds remaining put the Flyers out. 

However, the Flyers became a perennial power the very next year while the Penguins won two playoff rounds in 16 seasons. Then, along came Mario Lemieux, a towering figure a Flyer fan could sincerely resent. Even so, he was a Penguin for five seasons until they finally, with the help of two Pittsburgh disc jockeys dressed as witch doctors doing a pre-game show in the Spectrum press box, the Pens ended the 15-year streak by jumping to a 4-1 lead and hanging on to win 5-3. 

The two teams finally met in a playoff series that spring, in the second round. It was 2-2 into Game Five, when Lemieux, who was questionable to play because of jammed neck, scored four times in a six-goal Penguin first period. When Robbie Brown, who celebrated his goals with a windmill motion, beat Ron Hextall in the second period, the rattled and enraged goalie started to chase the Penguin winger before being restrained and then replaced. 

The Penguins built the lead to 9-3 before the Flyers, who had territorially dominated the first four games, got it back to 9-7 before Lemieux hit the empty net to complete one of the great one-game playoff performances in NHL history-five goals and eight points in 10-7 victory 

Nevertheless, the deeper and more experienced Flyers-Hextall stopping Lemieux on a first period breakaway in Game Six before suffering an MCL sprain,-wore down the Penguins in Game Seven in Pittsburgh 4-1, with Ken Wregget in goal. The sweetness of it all became apparent when Scott Mellanby put the series away into the empty net and skated past the Pittsburgh bench mocking Brown's windmill.

It seemed like the rivalry finally was born, but the aging Flyer nucleus broke up and the franchise hit a 5-year playoff drought while Lemieux was leading the Penguins to back-to-back Cups. The two teams didn't meet again in the spring until Lemieux, worn down by back issues, was on his last and Eric Lindros was in his prime. That first round series in 1997 took only five games for the Flyers to win, the Core States Canter crowd saying goodbye to Lemieux, who had announced he was going to retire, with a standing ovation.

It wasn't the first time Flyer fans had been so magnanimous towards The Grand Penguin. In March 1993, after completing his final radiation treatment for Hodgkins Disease, Lemieux hopped an afternoon plane to Philadelphia to join the Penguins after a 22-game sick leave. Lined up on the blue line before the national anthem, Lemieux was given a standing ovation.

He retired-for the first time-after the 1997 series but the Penguins still had Jagr. Three dominating games by the best player in the league into a second round series in 2000, he seemed like too much for Philadelphia regardless until Andy Delmore's overtime goal at the Igloo saved the Flyers from what would have been an 0-3 deficit. Two nights later, Keith Primeau's goal in an epic fifth overtime tied the series and essentially cooked the Penguins in a six-game Philadelphia victory, but not before Primeau was leveled early in the clincher by an open ice check by Bob Boughner. 

Five years later, along came Crosby, memorably abused in only his second Philadelphia appearance by Derian Hatcher and still scoring an overtime winner. In 2008, when the Flyers, in a rare role as an upstart after sinking to the bottom of the league the previous season, reached the Eastern Conference final, they were smacked down hard by the Penguins in five. 

The next year, in the first round, it was much closer, the Flyers, staying alive in a Game Five shutout in Pittsburgh and jumping shad 3-0 in Game Six when Dan Carcillo engaged Talbot in a fight that appeared to change everything. In one of the hardest pills to swallow in Flyer playoff history, the Penguins rallied for a 4-3 victory and ultimately winning a Stanley Cup that reminded the Flyers how close the had been to a deep run, if not the Cup. 

So the survivors of that pain were pumped in 2012, when Philadelphia rallied from a 3-0 deficit to win Game One on Jake Voracek's overtime goal, won a wild, two hat-trick contest (by Claude Giroux and Sean Couturier) in Game Two, 8-5. Just when the Penguins, who cut a 3-0 series lead to 3-2, appeared to be demonstrating they weren't going to go easy, Giroux flattened Crosby and scored on the first shift of a rousing 5-1 series clinching Flyer Game Six triumph.

Five Penguins remain from that ambush. Giroux, who played in the 2010 Final against Chicago, is the only one of the six surviving Flyers who doesn't recall that 2012 triumph as by far the most enjoyable one since joining the black orange.  

The Flyers eliminated Pittsburgh that day, reason enough. The next ovation Crosby gets at the Wells Fargo Center will be the first.

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