PITTSBURGH – Evgeni Malkin, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Russian-born star, remains a man of few words as he learns English and its tricky nuances.
One subject, though, gets him talking, and a lot: the Philadelphia Flyers, the opponent the 21-year-old Malkin already loves to hate.
The NHL’s second-leading scorer and MVP finalist still talks about the 8-2 loss in Philadelphia on Dec. 11, how the Flyers bullied the Penguins and got them off their game by inducing fights. In an additional indignity, he remembers popcorn being dumped on the Penguins’ bench by rowdy fans.
“That’s one of the teams that it’s really not a pleasure to play against,” Malkin said. “I really don’t like playing against them.
“I don’t like that team.”
Don’t like the Flyers? Join the crowd, Evgeni – most Penguins fans haven’t for 41 years, or since the two expansion franchises joined the NHL in 1967. The Flyers and Penguins share the state of Pennsylvania but not much else, and their rivalry has been a long, lively and, occasionally, bloody one.
This season, for example, Malkin received a nasty cut on his left cheek from the skate of the Flyers’ Mike Richards on March 16, and the two teams began fighting less than a minute into their April 2 game in Pittsburgh.
Now, the in-state rivalry is taking a previously unseen turn as the Flyers and Penguins met in a conference final for the first time. With the winner advancing to play for the Stanley Cup, the Eastern Conference final that starts Friday in Pittsburgh are certain to be competitive, contentious and colourful.
Feisty and fractious? That, too. This season alone, there have been accusations or insinuations of running up the score, diving and, even, game dumping.
Don’t like each other? No kidding.
“What else can you ask for?” Penguins forward Ryan Malone said. “It’s going to be a battle, it’s going to be fun and, as a hockey player, you want to play in and be a part of.”
Penguins general manager Ray Shero first experienced it as a youngster. When the Broad Street Bullies of Flyers coach Fred Shero, Ray’s father, were winning two Stanley Cups in the 1970s, they regularly beat up on the Penguins – Pittsburgh once went 15 years without winning in Philadelphia.
Ray Shero has longed switched loyalties, but he was a self-described rink rat who hung around the Flyers dressing room with players such as Bobby Clarke, Bernie Parent, Bill Barber and Bill Clement.
“I loved the Flyers,” Ray Shero said. “I lived and breathed hockey, like a lot of kids who grow up around hockey teams, and there a lot of fond memories.”
Not that many in Pittsburgh have such pleasant memories of the Flyers, who lead the series 129-76-31. The Flyers won the three previous playoff series against the Penguins in 1989, 1997 and 2000, overcoming a five-goal, eight-point game by Mario Lemieux (1989) and a five-overtime game in Pittsburgh (2000).
In a twist last season, the Penguins swept the eight regular-season games against Philadelphia for the first time. This season, the Flyers won the first four and five of eight, though they lost 7-1 in Pittsburgh on March 16.
“The playoffs are always intense but it throws a little spice into it when it’s Philadelphia and Pittsburgh,” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “It doesn’t get any easier.”
Crosby already has a history against the Flyers, and not only because he has a Lemieux-like 16 goals and 21 assists for 37 points in 20 games against them.
The Flyers were the first NHL team to accuse Crosby of diving – embellishing contact to draw a penalty – and the New York Rangers picked up on the theme during their just-concluded five-game series loss against Pittsburgh.
Then-Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock made the charge after a 2005 game in which Crosby had several teeth chipped and his mouth bloodied by Derian Hatcher’s stick, only to return after being stitched up to score the winning goal in overtime.
Maybe it’s in his hockey DNA to dislike anything Pittsburgh, but Flyers chairman Ed Snider remains irritated the Penguins even have players such as Crosby, Malkin and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. All were first-round draft picks resulting from Pittsburgh’s run of last-place finishes from 2002 to ’06.
“Let’s face it, you get rewarded for being the worst team in the league, so Pittsburgh has all these great players for being lousy for so many years,” Snider said Monday during a rare locker-room visit. “That part I don’t like so much.
“I’ve never been in favour of the draft the way it is.”
Not that Snider is offering to give back another former first-rounder, R.J. Umberger. The Flyers forward from suburban Pittsburgh had eight goals (he had only 13 in the regular season) during a five-game elimination of Montreal in the second round.
Philadelphia and Pittsburgh would have met in the first round if the Penguins hadn’t lost 2-0 in Philadelphia on April 6, costing them the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. Senators coach Bryan Murray all but said the Penguins intentionally dumped the game to avoid meeting the Flyers and to play his team.
The Flyers diplomatically sidestepped that discussion, perhaps because the Penguins have since won eight of nine playoff games and all five in Pittsburgh. Philadelphia has lost eight of its last nine there.
“We all know what happened against Pittsburgh this year, the things that happened on the ice, the comments that were made after the game,” the Flyers’ Daniel Briere said. “I expect this to have a lot more intensity right off the bat.”