PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Flying sticks. Pointed fingers. Postgame putdowns. And that was just the coaches.
What can the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers possibly do in Saturday’s regular-season finale to top their last meeting, a 6-4 Flyers win at Consol Energy Center this week that served as a preview of what will be a contentious first-round playoff series?
The smart answer might be nothing.
For all the bad blood between the two rivals, each knows there’s too much to risk and little to gain if they spend 60 minutes (or more) trying to rattle the other. The Penguins have already clinched the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference and will have home ice advantage against the fifth-seeded Flyers when the playoffs begin next week.
Neither team wants to risk injury to a star player or the threat of discipline if things get out of hand.
No wonder Philadelphia centre Claude Giroux thinks it’s going to be “weird knowing the game doesn’t mean anything.”
Unlike their last meeting, which included a last-minute brawl, Philadelphia coach Peter Laviolette calling Pittsburgh counterpart Dan Bylsma “gutless” and led NBC Sports analyst Mike Milbury to label Penguins star Sidney Crosby “a punk” and a “goody two-shoes” while appearing on a Philadelphia radio station.
Milbury later apologized. Don’t expect the same kind of backtracking from Philadelphia assistant coach Craig Berube, who described Crosby and teammate Evgeni Malkin as the “dirtiest players on their team.”
The Penguins have tried to take the trash-talking in stride. Besides, the Flyers aren’t the only opponent with an axe to grind. New York coach John Tortorella called Pittsburgh “one of the most arrogant organizations in the league” following a 5-2 Penguins win Thursday that included Penguins defenceman Brooks Orpik getting a 5-minute major penalty for a knee-to-knee collision with New York forward Derek Stepan.
“They whine about this stuff all the time, and look what happens,” Tortorella said. “It’s ridiculous. But they’ll whine about something else over there, won’t they, starting with their two … stars.”
Orpik was not disciplined by the league for the hit and the Penguins and their normally reserved captain are ready to put a week of withering criticism behind them as the real season begins.
“It really is garbage,” Crosby said. “It’s nonsense and if they want to do it great, but I’m not going to waste my time answering questions about it all the time. It’s getting pretty old.”
Maybe, but it doesn’t appear to be going anywhere.
Though Pittsburgh has arguably been the best team in the NHL since Jan. 1, the Penguins have been unable to deal with the Flyers. Philadelphia has won four of the five meetings this season and is unbeaten at Consol Energy Center since the arena opened in 2010.
The winner on Saturday would seem to have momentum, though Philadelphia forward and former Pittsburgh star Jaromir Jagr doesn’t think there will be much carryover no matter what happens.
“(The) playoffs is totally different,” Jagr said. “You start from 0 – 0 … Sometimes you are kind of lucky all year against one team, but playoffs are totally different.”
That explains why the Penguins are focused on tuning out all the rhetoric.
Though his counterparts have felt the urge to express their frustration and call out his team, Bylsma has remained tight-lipped. All the gamesmanship in the world will be forgotten once the puck drops next week.
“In every series, and the series coming up, one team will win four games, there will be a handshake,” Bylsma said. “One side will wish the other side luck in the next round. The other side will go on.”
The healthiest team will likely be the one that survives, which leaves Bylsma and Laviolette faced with some decisions to make in the finale. Bylsma wouldn’t say Friday whether he would play Malkin or goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, both on the precipice of significant milestones.
Malkin, the NHL’s leading scorer, is one goal away from reaching 50 for the first time in a season while Fleury’s next victory will break Tom Barrasso’s mark for career wins.
The Penguins likely will play without forwards James Neal and Steve Sullivan, who are nursing what the team termed as minor issues. Bylsma expects both to be ready for the playoffs.
The Flyers aren’t quite so settled.
Defenceman Nicklas Grossman is day-to-day with a lower body injury while forward Daniel Briere is out indefinitely. Both players went down in the win over Pittsburgh last Sunday, with Briere’s injury coming on a tough but clean hit from Penguins centre Joe Vitale that precipitated the game-ending brawl.
However, any sort of payback will likely be put on hold. The Flyers figure they can still send a message through the scoreboard.
“Given the choice to beat the Penguins or lose to the Penguins, we wanna win,” Laviolette said. “The objective remains the same.”