The way Ryan Malone sees it, the first visible demonstration of the hatred that exists between his Pittsburgh Penguins and the Philadelphia Flyers should come relatively quickly when they meet up in the Eastern Conference finals that begin Friday.
"Probably right when the puck drops I think," the Penguins forward said with a laugh that suggested that he was making a joke, albeit one that definitely has more that a bit of truth in it.
|Will it be intense? Just ask Sidney Crosby, who lost a few teeth at the hands of Derian Hatcher. (Getty Images)|
But several recent incidents have helped stoked the fires, beginning with Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby being introduced to the NHL as a rookie a couple of years back when Philadelphia defenseman Derian Hatcher removed a few of his teeth with his stick.
The Penguins rubbed it in last season when the Flyers were on their way to the league's worst record, winning all eight games between them, and Philadelphia returned the favor this season by running up the score in an 8-2 victory around Christmas. That was one of the Flyers' five wins in eight meetings, games that produced 431 penalty minutes and at one point left Flyers star Daniel Briere wearing a knee brace after receiving what seemed like a cheap, knee-on-knee shot from Pittsburgh agitator Jarkko Ruutu.
Throw as the contempt-breeding familiarity that comes from each team having several players, and its coach, come up through minor-league clubs that are based nearby in the state, and it's not hard to understand why this series could become the most intense of these playoffs.
"Obviously there's a history there," conceded Flyers coach John Stevens. "But if we're undisciplined, we're just neutralizing ourselves; we can't afford to do that."
Neither can the Penguins, because both teams have dangerous power plays that were critical factors getting them through the first two rounds. Pittsburgh ran over the Ottawa Senators in just four games to win its opening round and then sent the New York Rangers packing after five. The Flyers survived a tough seven-game opening round against Washington and then dominated the Eastern Conference's top seed from Montreal to take Round 2 in five games.
The special teams were crucial, but the bigger common thread in the earlier rounds was the solid overall defense the teams played, particularly the standout goaltending. Marc-Andre Fleury has helped the Penguins allow the fewest goals per game, while Philadelphia veteran Martin Biron, in his first playoffs, was in many ways responsible for stealing the series against the Canadiens.
"We all know goaltending is going to be a big part of this," Penguins coach Michel Therrien said. "At this time of year, it is always critical."
So is timely offense, which both teams have managed to produce. Pittsburgh has more dynamic firepower with Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marian Hossa and Petr Sykora leading the way, but Philadelphia has arguably the league's most balanced attack, with seven players getting at least 20 goals this season. One who didn't was R.J. Umberger, but the Pittsburgh native has emerged as a scoring star for the Flyers in the postseason with nine goals, including eight in the last series to lead the team.
"I'm trying to get to the net and shoot the puck a lot more, when you do that, the puck finds a way to get in," Umberger said. "I don't know if there's any other real way to explain it except that."
One thing Umberger does know is that while his team is an underdog for the third consecutive series, whoever does survive will have to pay a price to do so. And that's the way it should be, according to his fellow Pittsburgh native Malone.
"We'll all be jacked up, ready to go," Malone said. "Everyone's excited to get going, so why not beat each other up a little bit to get on to the next round?"