Leave it to Mike Sullivan to play the party pooper.
Pittsburgh Hockey Now conducted a small survey after Penguins practice Tuesday. Through three games in the team’s first-round playoff series against the Philadelphia Flyers, there hasn’t been anything very obvious that would link this to the blood-stained, hate-filled rivalry that for so many years defined games between the cross-state clubs.
Things were going well enough – the few players asked mostly shrugged and gave stock answers about the series just having a playoff flavor.
And then came Sullivan, all logical and buzzkill-like.
The way the Penguins coach describes it, what we have seen so far in the series is the rivalry, at least as it exists today.
“For sure I think it’s a rivalry,” Sullivan said. “It depends on how you define rivalry. If people are looking for all the fights and all the (extracurricular) things that have taken place in the past, I would suggest to you that the game has evolved.”
To which there are probably a lot of fans proclaiming, “Rats!”
In the back-and-forth of the history of these clubs, the vitriol probably stands out most. It dates back to the days of Bobby Clarke and Ron Hextall and this guy:
That is hanging in the Flyers’ press conference room at Wells Fargo Center.
You don’t have to go back to the 1970s and ‘80s to find examples of the explosive nature of the rivalry. When the teams met in the 2012 playoffs, the Flyers did a masterful job of agitating the Penguins, goading star players such as Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin into fighting and taking penalties – and upsetting the Penguins in the process.
Don’t Hold Your Breath
The 2018 series isn’t over, and there is at least some chance things could erupt, but Sullivan stood his ground.
“The stakes are very high,” he said. “I think the teams are trying to do their very best to stay in the moment, stay focused and put their teams in the best position to win. That’s how I see it.
“I think it’s every bit the rivalry that it’s always been. There’s emotion on both sides. You can see that both teams are hungry and are trying to win. So I think it’s every bit the rivalry it’s always been.”
Just minus the juiciest parts.
Crosby went so far as to suggest that this is your basic playoff matchup, one that could be between any two clubs that shared some familiarity.
“It feels like a playoff series,” Crosby said. “I think both home crowds are into it as they would be typically in a playoff series. I think everyone’s much more familiar with each other, being Philadelphia. Guys on both teams have played each other for a number of years.
“Outside of that, it feels like a typical playoff series would. The intensity grows with each game.”
Pressed by Pittsburgh Hockey Now for any subtle things he has noticed during the games that would peg this as Penguins-Flyers, Crosby didn’t budge.
“I feel like every playoff series has those little things,” he said. “It’s definitely a different game and physicality and everything that comes with it. I think that’s gone for the playoff series.”
Winger Bryan Rust and goaltender Matt Murray flung even bigger, colder blankets on the topic.
“This time of year, pretty much every series is a rivalry – or it ends up becoming a rivalry just based on a good, tough, hard playoff series,” Rust said.
And Murray: “I don’t know. It’s not really something that we think too much about, to be honest. We just go about our business and try to play our game.”
Perhaps in the end it will be to the Penguins’ advantage that things remain intense but somewhat civil this series. They are up two games to one, and a win in the best-of-seven series and the chance to advance en route to a possible third Stanley Cup in a row, after all, would no doubt outweigh the fun of some old-time shenanigans.
It just might not be as satisfying to Penguins fans who crave both.