"I don't like that team." – Evgeni Malkin
Mr. Malkin was expressing his discontent towards the Philadelphia Flyers after an 8-2 loss on December 11th. Perhaps the superstar was not ready for the physical play of the cross-town rival Flyers. OR, he didn’t take too kindly to having popcorn dumped on the Penguin bench by those lovely Flyer fans.
Whatever the case may be, I’m sure the man they call “Geno”, and the rest of the Penguins will be ready for an Eastern Conference final of epic proportions.
The speedy and skilled Pittsburgh Penguins are set to butt heads with the 2008 re-incarnation of the ‘Broad Street Bullies’.
Being a diehard member of Leafs Nation, I’m all too familiar with tough losses to the Philly faithful. However, I should credit these Flyers with more than just grit and a ‘him-em-up’ attitude. Besides that usual chip on their shoulder, the Flyers are chipping in with goals and tough defence to prove that they should be taken seriously.
After going through a rebuilding process last year, many counted out John Stevens’ Flyers from even attaining a post-season birth, but doubters have slowly come around.
The Flyers handled the Russian Capitals from Washington, and then completed a near-sweep of the skilled ‘Bleu, Blanc et Rouge’ that may have caused the entire country of Canadato to become Penguin fans overnight.
But now, the Flyers face their toughest test yet, and they intend to handle it just as they have the entire season: With a Little Flyer Hospitality.
This is the same way they played in their five wins against the Penguins, including one on the last day of the regular season that could have resulted in a first round Pennsylvania showdown. There was even speculation that the Penguins didn’t bother giving 100% because they preferred to play those 'Sensweeptional' Ottawaboys.
It seemed to work out in their favour, but they didn’t count on the Flyers to make it this far. The Penguins have to prove that it doesn’t matter who they face in these playoffs, and that their flashy superstars can handle the likes of Downie, Hartnell and the fans of the aptly named, 'Orange Crush'.
Pittsburgh appears to have had some favourable playoff match-ups so far, facing a deplorable Senators team that went from heroes to zeroes in the course of 4 months.
In the second round, they faced a Ranger team that was touted as the 'Beasts of the East' at the start of the season. New York had a bolstered line-up on offence and a superstar net-minder in Henrik Lundqvist. Not to mention a relatively obscure hockey player by the name of Sean Avery. I know he hasn’t been in the papers much, but I thought he could really get under the skin of Marc-Andre Fleury. He exemplified the spirit of the Rangers in the 2007 playoffs and could have been a major factor, until a lacerated spleen put him out of commission.
However, the spleen injury occurred during a game 3 loss to Pittsburgh, putting the Rangers in a 3-0 hole. Surely Avery was not entirely to blame for the Rangers playoff shortcomings, and while we can attribute some of the Penguins success to good fortune, there are other factors at play.
Most analysts will immediately look to the three headed monster of Malkin, Crosby and Hossa, but the real success of the Penguins lies in their depth.
They have a group of top 6 forwards that most NHL teams envy and a great set of role players who can deliver a big hit when needed. Combine that with a solid defence corps and the outstanding goaltending of Marc-Andre Fleury and it’s no mystery why the Penguins could have been the best team in the East.
The Flyers prevented that from happening and could do it again if Marty Biron keeps up his impersonation of a brick wall. Add a dash of clutch goal-scoring by Pittsburgh’s own R.J. Umberger and a sprinkle of Downie’s brand of agitation and you have the recipe for another playoff upset.
It is clear that the Flyers will play their style of rock-em-sock-em hockey, but how will the Penguins respond? Can they still demonstrate flashes of brilliance and tape-to-tape passing despite the heavy checking? Or will they attempt to fight back using their own big body presence from Hal Gill and Ryan Malone?
Pennsylvania has always been home to one of the greatest hockey rivalries, but this playoff series has the potential to turn into a modern-day Gettysburg.
As the aroma of Philly-cheese steak spreads through the Wachovia Centre, Penguins fans have another question for their cross town rivals: Can you smell what Laraque is cookin’?