PITTSBURGH — When last we watched the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers engage one of the most heated and consistent rivalries in the NHL, Philadelphia forward Wayne Simmonds concussed defenseman Brian Dumoulin and Philadelphia defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere tackled Penguins defender Kris Letang during the following melee which injured Letang.
That was Feb. 23 Stadium Series game and Letang has not played since the first period of it. As if the rivalry needed a little more gasoline. If there is carryover, the Penguins will look to their 6-foot-5 hammer, Erik Gudbranson who drew the attention of Washington pot stir Tom Wilson on Tuesday night.
“Guess we’ll find out (Sunday). The personnel has kind of changed on both teams,” Gudbranson told Pittsburgh Hockey Now. “The Philly-Pit rivalry really doesn’t go away, so I’m excited for it.”
Gudbranson is becoming a big part of the Penguins room and on-ice product. The big guy gives the Penguins a presence they haven’t had on the ice since early last season when Ryan Reaves was taking regular shifts, and before that, it has been a long time since the Penguins had a hammer of their own who also played regularly and well.
His ice time shows trust from the coaches and his locker room interactions show his quick integration. It doesn’t hurt that he’s media friendly, either.
And just like that, the Penguins were turning the page from the sub-par performance Saturday against the St. Louis Blues. In fact, Penguins captain Sidney Crosby also said the Penguins have turned the page from the Stadium Series game, too.
“I think we’ve forgotten about it and moved by it. I think we understand what we need to do. It’s about us and how we need to play,” Crosby said.
That’s the focus afforded only to teams with loftier goals and enough perspective to avoid prioritizing things which don’t earn points. It’s also easier to do so because Philadelphia is not a playoff contender. And the Penguins are.
“I think we go out there with the intention of playing our game. And we trust it,” Crosby said.
The Penguins had the Stadium Series game firmly in hand despite playing with just four defensemen for most of the game. Not until goalie Matt Murray whiffed on a weak shot from the wall in the waning minutes, then Philadelphia scored a last-minute goal with an extra attacker and an overtime goal did the Penguins let victory slip away.
And Simmonds is no longer a Flyer. On the surface it could be a mid-march game between teams in different stages of their season without the heated drama.
It could be a docile affair but let’s be honest. It won’t be. This is Penguins-Flyers. It’s a rivalry which extends from 1967 as two new teams in the league. From Kate Smith, the Philadelphia Spectrum curse, Brian Propp, Keith Acton, Ron Hextall, Mario Lemieux, Robby Brown, Max Talbot, Daniel Carcillo and Evgeni Malkin’s 2012 slapshot on a breakaway.
It’s Flyers fans putting Crosby’s picture in the urinals last April as the Penguins flushed Philadelphia out of Round One and Crosby as a rookie eating Philadelphia defenseman Derian Hatcher’s stick, which cost Crosby a few teeth and stitches.
It’s still Philadelphia.
Penguins fans and the team itself may be glad to have a guy like Gudbranson on their side for once. Even if the Penguins want to look past the dark arts, the rivalry itself is built on them. Perhaps Philadelphia and the Penguins will engage in a spirited clean affair.
Perhaps. Perhaps not.
As Gudbranson smiled, “Guess we’ll find out,” today.