5 Reasons the Flyers-Penguins Rivalry Is the Best in the NHL
The Stanley Cup playoffs are upon us and hockey fans around the league are preparing for the most entertaining and enthralling portion of the yearly sports schedule.
The NHL playoffs are always captivating, as teams go to war for nearly two months for the right to hold up the coolest trophy in sports, the Stanley Cup.
New rivalries are born and old ones are reignited each year in the tournament for Lord Stanley's Cup, but the absolute best rivalry in hockey will be on display starting Wednesday in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals when the fifth-seeded Philadelphia Flyers head west to open a seven-game series against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Sure, there are plenty of great rivalries in the NHL, but the Keystone State Showdown is without a doubt currently the most intense rivalry between teams, front offices and fans in the four major sports, let alone the league itself, and these are the five reasons why.
Battle for Pennsylvania and the Best Fans in Sports
Pennsylvania is the most sports-crazed state in the Union.
Flyers fans. Penguins fans. Phillies fans. Steelers fans. Eagles fans. Theses are the most intense supporters of their teams in professional sports, and hell, before the Pirates and Phillies were split up, they had a strong rivalry going as well.
Two metropolitan areas and seven teams all with ridiculously loyal followings.
These games, whether they be regular season or playoffs, are not just battles for spots in the standings, but contentious meetings to enable one half of the state bragging rights over the other half until, at the very least, their next meeting.
As a Philadelphia fan, I tend to discredit Pittsburgh as a "sports city" because they're hardly a city and they do not have a basketball team. However, it would be foolish of me to discredit the fanaticism for the teams that do reside in Pittsburgh, and I see the Steel City as the only real competition to Philly in terms of a United States hockey town.
Proximity and familiarity breed contempt, and with fans of both teams living as neighbors in the suburban areas surrounding Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the two organizations, from top to bottom, hold nothing but contempt for one another.
Imagine, under any other circumstance, a legendary Hall of Famer who helped bring two Stanley Cups to Pittsburgh getting booed every time he touches the puck in the Penguins' Consol Energy Center. The disdain for each other drives both fanbases to make illogical decisions.
Between signing Jaromir Jagr and Max Talbot this summer, the Flyers acquired a Pittsburgh legend and a folk hero with a combined three Stanley Cup titles in Pittsburgh Penguins uniforms.
While Pens fans have decided to boo Jagr, one of the best players in franchise history, they have continued to admire Talbot, whose two goals in Game 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup finals propelled the Penguins to their first Cup since Jagr's teams went back-to-back in the early 1990s.
While these two signings were clearly motivated by what Talbot and Jagr can do on the ice and in the dressing room, it would be hard to discount the psychological effect of losing two players who mean so much to your most bitter rival.
However, the lines of betrayal run both ways.
Pittsburgh general manager Ray Shero is the son of the only Stanley Cup champion coach in Flyers history, Fred Shero, whose Broad Street Bullies won two Cups and made three straight appearances in the finals from 1974-1976.
And who could forget Philly legends John LeClair and Mark Recchi signing with the Pens when the Flyers bought out their contracts coming out of the lockout?
These sorts of cross-state back-stabbings are just fuel to an already intense fire that burns right through the center of the Keystone State.
Both the Flyers and Penguins play a physical style and depend on defense and goaltending to shutdown opponents and close out games.
But the offensive stars on both sides make the Flyers and Penguins two of the NHL's most TV-friendly teams.
Both Pittsburgh and Philly are the only two teams to appear in two Winter Classics each, and the NHL/NBC have not yet cashed in on the much anticipated Flyers-Penguins matchup that could take place at Beaver Stadium New Year's Day.
According to a player poll in The Hockey News, this series features two of the top three players in the league, as Pens' captain Sidney Crosby and Flyers' leading scorer Claude Giroux finished first and third in the poll, respectively.
But even beyond the top-line centermen, these two teams host some of the most recognizable names in the sport.
Hart Trophy favorite Evgeni Malkin finished sixth in THN's poll while scoring 50 goals and leading the league with 109 points. Jordan Staal, Kris Letang, James Neal and Marc-Andre Fleury are all potential All-Stars.
On the Flyers' side, Scott Hartnell's 37 goals were the sixth highest total in the league, Jaromir Jagr is a certified legend, Danny Briere is playoff dynamite, Ilya Bryzgalov's personality lit up the hockey world leading up to the Winter Classic and Kimmo Timonen is one of the most respected names in the league.
This upcoming playoff series will be the highlight of the first round, first because of the intensity of the rivalry and second because of the unmatchable amount of talent on each roster.
Both the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins were part of the original NHL expansion in the 1967-68 season when the league doubled in size from six to 12 teams.
Neither were really ever good when the other was at its point of dominance (Flyers in the mid-1970s, Penguins in the early 1990s) until recently.
But as I mentioned in the introduction, rivalries are born and bread in the playoffs.
Overall, the Flyers and Penguins have met in five previous playoff series, with the Flyers holding a 3-2 edge.
But Pittsburgh eliminated Philly in the 2008 Conference championship and 2009 quarterfinals.
While the Flyers' roster has turned over quite a bit in the past few seasons, fans and management still see the Penguins as the team they need to beat to become the beasts of the East, and it is their intensity that fuels this great rivalry.
And every fan of these teams knows the winner of this series goes on a great playoff run, as neither team has failed to make it to at least the conference finals when they have met each other in the playoffs.
Good Guys vs. Bad Guys
These teams do not like each other.
The fact is the Flyers are the NHL's bad guys. The rest of the league hates the Flyers, their city and their fans.
While John Tortorella and Craig Berube think otherwise, Pittsburgh is the face of the league.
This rivalry is the perfect storm. The Flyers are not the Broad Street Bullies anymore, but they still play a style that refuses to back down to their opponent's size or skill.
The Pens thrive on their status as the league's pretty boys, and they use their favorable status to bully other teams without repercussions while their own offensive stars are free to skate without fear (how else would you explain a referee choosing to "diffuse" a situation by penalizing Jody Shelley for 10 minutes while allowing Steve Macintyre to stay on the ice?).
It's Pennsylvania's battle of good versus evil every time the Flyers and Penguins meet, and no other rivalry in hockey can match these stakes game in and game out.
Have a better rivalry in hockey? How about another sport? Let me know in the comments. And be sure to hit me with your series predictions.