Like most things in professional sports, hockey rivalries come and go, depending on the strength of both teams and the players involved.
The Battle of Ontario? Passe. The Battle of Alberta? Still burning, but neither the Oilers or Flames have enjoyed much success of late.
No, the pinnacle of NHL rivalry these days is in the state of Pennsylvania, and the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers will renew unpleasantries on Friday when the puck is dropped on the Eastern Conference final. It will mark the first post-season meeting in eight years between the two squads, and the first ever in the conference final.
There have been times before when both the Pens and Flyers were solid teams, such as the late 1980s and late 1990s. However, it's safe to say that a wholesale injection of youth to both teams in recent years has taken the Battle of Pennsylvania to brand new heights.
Sidney Crosby leads the charge in Pittsburgh, while erstwhile World Junior teammates Jeff Carter and Mike Richards have rejuvenated the Flyers, who finished dead-last in the league last season. Throw in Evgeni Malkin and Brooks Orpik for the Pens, as well as R.J. Umberger and Braydon Coburn for the Flyers, and both teams are loaded with young stars who don't like each other one bit.
Malkin threw the first punch this week with this shocking statement: "I don't like that team."
If you need further evidence of the bad blood between the Pennsylvania rivals, check out any of their games from this season. It doesn't take much to get the blood boiling, especially when Richards is shadowing Crosby.
These are two fairly similar teams: both have prolific offensive threats, very good goaltending, lots of depth, and adequate defense. Both squads had question marks on the blueline heading into the season, but the emergence of Coburn in the state capital and the continued development of Orpik and Ryan Whitney in Steeltown have gone a long way toward addressing them. Both defense corps have proven capable of getting the job done in the post-season.
It's a given that goaltending is crucial at this stage of the playoffs. So let's take a look at the two masked men who have gotten their clubs this far.
This season has been a rebirth of sorts for Marc-Andre Fleury. The 23-year-old Pittsburgh netminder, who was thrown into the fire far before he was ready and has been roundly criticized for an apparent lack of mental fortitude and rebound control, among other things, finally broke through the barriers in 2007-08. Even a high ankle sprain, which kept him out for 27 games, couldn't slow him down, as he posted a 19-10-2 record with a 2.33 goals-against average and .921 save percentage. Confidence doesn't seem to be an issue for Fleury now. Neither does rebound control.
In southeastern Pennsylvania, Martin Biron has been outstanding for the Flyers in these playoffs. Though he has always been considered a solid goaltender, there have been lingering doubts in recent years about his ability to be a bonafide starter. His performance against the Washington Capitals and Montreal Canadiens has almost certainly erased those questions. Without Biron standing on his head, the Flyers don't get past either of those opponents, even with Umberger and Daniel Briere ripping it up at the other end.
And let's not forget Biron's memorable on-ice lecture to Crosby earlier this season: "I'm not a liar. I don't lie, I don't whine." No, Biron doesn't like his cross-state rivals much either.
Up front, both teams have outstanding top six units, as well as a couple of players who could come out of nowhere to lift their club to victory. For the Pens, beyond the usual suspects like Crosby, Malkin, Marian Hossa, Ryan Malone, Petr Sykora, and Jordan Staal, look out for a couple of gritty guys who can score. Pascal Dupuis has been a regular contributor to the scoring summary since joining Pittsburgh, and Maxime Talbot can light the lamp as well. It's worth noting that he captained the Hull Olympiques to the QMJHL championship, the President's Cup, in 2003; he was also an alternate captain on Canada's silver-medal team at the 2003 World Junior (yes, the same one where Fleury put in the winning goal off - guess who? - Braydon Coburn).
For the Flyers, it's obvious that Briere, Richards, Carter, Umberger, Vaclav Prospal, Scott Hartnell and Joffrey Lupul can burn you at any time. But don't forget about Sami Kapanen, a scorer-turned-grinder with blazing speed, or Scottie Upshall, a player long on heart and talent who potted 14 goals this season. Both have been fine two-way players for the orange and black.
There aren't many sure things about this series, but you can bet that it will be entertaining. And another thing: all-out war.
Prediction: Pens in 7... if Crosby can keep his emotions in check. If the Flyers get him off his game, all bets are off.