PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Scott Hartnell can feel the animosity the second the Philadelphia Flyers forward skates onto the ice at Pittsburgh’s Consol Energy Center.
“There’s a lot of hatred by the city against us,” Hartnell said. “We thrive off that.”
If the Flyers want to survive their first-round matchup with the Penguins, they don’t really have a choice.
“It’s going to be a bloodbath,” Hartnell added, with a grin.
The typical venom between the rivals will likely only escalate this time around. Pittsburgh has won each of the previous two playoff meetings, using victories in 2008 and 2009 as springboards to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Throw in Philadelphia’s addition of former Pittsburgh stars Jaromir Jagr and Max Talbot and the Flyers coaching staff calling out the Penguins for dirty play and there’s more than enough bile to go around.
The series starts on Wednesday night in Pittsburgh, where the Penguins have home-ice advantage in name only.
“I expect a pretty intense series,” Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby said. “If anything prior to this is any indication, that’s pretty fair to say. Those are the kind of series you want to be a part of.”
Pittsburgh’s 4-2 win over the Flyers in the regular season finale on Saturday was the calm before the storm. Save for a first-period fight between Philadelphia’s Harry Zolnierczyk and Penguins forward Joe Vitale, both teams were on their best behaviour.
The game was so calm Crosby felt compelled to call it “weird.”
The Flyers are 5-1 at Consol since it opened in 2010 and their 25 road victories this season tied Boston for tops in the NHL.
Hartnell has a theory on why Philadelphia feels so comfortable at Pittsburgh’s new barn, pointing to Consol’s plush interior as opposed to cramped and outdated Mellon Arena.
“The fans aren’t on top of you,” he said. “It feels like you can just go out and play.”
Something the Flyers have done better than most teams against the Penguins.
Philadelphia won four of the six regular season meetings, often frustrating Pittsburgh’s high-powered offence by taking away the space Crosby and Art Ross Trophy winner Evgeni Malkin need to operate.
The Flyers have the utmost respect for Crosby and Malkin, though with that respect comes a fair amount of anger.
“There’s guys in (Pittsburgh) that you don’t like,” Hartnell said. “Obviously they’re some of the best players in the league and you see them on the highlights every night and it annoys you.”
And that annoyance can sometimes bubble over. Their last meaningful meeting—a 6-4 Philadelphia win on April 1—ended with an ugly brawl in the final minute that left Philadelphia coach Peter Laviolette smashing a stick over the glass in frustration.
Laviolette later called Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma “gutless” for setting the stage of the fight and assistant coach Craig Berube piled on a few days later, calling Crosby and Malkin the two dirtiest players on the team.
Crosby brushed off the criticism as gamesmanship while acknowledging he’s not exactly a gentleman on the ice.
Becoming one now wouldn’t be wise. The former MVP is starting to come on after missing all but 22 games this year due to concussion-like symptoms, scoring his eighth goal of the season on Saturday.
“We wanted to make sure we finished strong and I think that’s what we did the last few games,” Crosby said. “The real season starts now.”
That’s why the Penguins are refusing to engage in the trash-talk. A sometimes tortuous 15 months off the ice behind him, Crosby is focused on leading Pittsburgh to its second Stanley Cup in four years.
Pittsburgh appeared primed to make a Cup run last season only to be derailed by injuries to Crosby and Malkin while losing to Tampa Bay in seven games in the opening round.
The Penguins are healthy and confident. So are the young Flyers, who racked up 103 points in the regular season despite a retooled roster that includes Talbot.
A fan favourite during his six seasons in Pittsburgh, Talbot allows it’s a bit different to be on the other side of the rivalry now.
“I can’t say it’s not special playing here,” Talbot said.
That doesn’t mean he wants to win any less, even if it comes at the expense of good friends Crosby and Malkin.
Hartnell has no such loyalty issues. He enjoys playing the role of villain and understands the key to pulling off the mild upset will rely on Philadelphia’s ability to get under the Penguins’ skin.
“For us to be great and to win the series, we’re going to have to shut those guys down,” he said. “You don’t have to work very hard to get the blood boiling.”