CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa. — There’s a difference between meaningful history and trivia. Often, our sports conversations lean on the latter and not the former.
It’s not all the fans’ fault, either. Those of us in the media industry are probably more to blame for directing the conversation in these ways.
Is it relevant that the juggernaut Penguins melted down in 2012 against a Flyers team that seemingly knew how to push their buttons? Considering that just three Penguins — Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang — remain from that remarkable, chaotic playoff series, and that core has since fulfilled its potential with two additional championships, it seems to merit a passing note and then a focus on the present.
“We’re all over 30 years old now,” Letang said after Monday practice at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex. “We’re supposed to be mature.”
“I don’t have a whole lot to say about it,” Mike Sullivan said, adding that he had only a vague recollection of the series from his assistant coach perch with the Rangers at the time. “A lot of these players weren’t a part of it.”
Sullivan’s point is well-taken. The cast of characters in this year’s first-round series is quite different, from skaters to goalies to coaches and general managers, in both organizations. It feels much more relevant to discuss what lies ahead than what lay behind.
“I mean, it was … whatever it was, it was in the moment,” Letang said. “Emotional. We have a different team, different experience, different coaching staff. Everything is different, so we don’t even look at that.”
All due respect to Letang, but the fans of both teams have a different experience. Players and coaches come and go, but I’d wager 2012 doesn’t seem that long ago for those of you reading this story.
If there was one man in the Penguins dressing room who appreciated that perspective, it was Bryan Rust, who was but a sophomore at the University of Notre Dame the last time this cross-state feud carried over into the playoffs.
He reminded me that Flyers have a few carryovers from six years ago: Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier, Jakub Voráček, Matt Read and Wayne Simmonds. Much like the Penguins’ long-tenured core members, they have all entered NHL middle age while going at it in divisional skirmishes for several years. In this age of roster turnover due to salary-cap considerations, it’s actually been a nice run for the big boys on both sides.
“There has been a lot of turnover, but it’s been a lot of the same core guys,” Rust said. “I think that’s where the rivalry stems from, those core guys going head to head. Our guys have had a good year. Their guys have had a good year. I think it’s going to make it more exciting.”
Patric Hörnqvist expressed a similar sentiment about the star power in this series. He’s looking forward to enjoying it much like the fans in the stands.
“They’re really strong up front,” Hörnqvist said. “That first line drives them, and that power play. … We have a really great matchup in front of us. We know all about them and they know all about us. It’s going to be a hell of a series.”
It’s that modern-day familiarity that will push this best of seven into a special stratosphere, if it does get there.
Some of the intrigue will be tactical, like what Hörnqvist spoke of when he emphasized the importance of Penguins forwards manning up on Flyers defensemen who join the counterattack. The former Ranger Carl Hagelin has faced Philadelphia as many times as almost anyone in that room, and he remarked on how the Flyers roster has become “a little speedier, a little more skilled.”
Some of the intrigue will be emotional, but not because of all the pucks that got behind Marc-André Fleury and Ilya Brzgalov six years ago, or all the penalty minutes accumulated by James Neal and Scott Hartnell.
Jamie Oleksiak might prefer a Broad Street Bullies-type game or two in this series, but he has those Size 14 skates planted in the here and now.
“No team really has the same build as before, with big, strong, cross-checking guys,” he said. “The game itself has evolved. Everyone’s a little smaller, a little quicker.”
And yet … it’s still the Stanley Cup playoffs we all know and love. Love or hate the NHL’s decision to set up the postseason with a divisional focus, but it’s given us more readymade powder kegs in the early rounds. That adds some juice for even the newcomers in these established rivalries.
“We’ve had a little experience with Philly,” Oleksiak said. “It’s not as much of a feeling-out process. We kinda know what to expect. At the same time, it’s going to a little different, a little grittier, a little more finishing of checks.”
OK, that’s enough. Back to the clichés.
Matt Murray was 17 when Crosby passed Sam Carchidi‘s baton to Giroux, so it’s no shock that he rejects the thought that history could play a role.
“Not really, to be honest,” Murray said. “We’re focused on what we’re doing.”
The Penguins’ stoic starting goalie is probably correct, even if the playoff exploits of Max Talbot, Ryan Malone, Keith Primeau, Eric Lindros and Mario Lemieux are fresh in the minds of fans on both sides.