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Penguins-Flyers: A Classic Rivalry Subdued, Not Renewed



Pittsburgh Penguins Philadelphia Flyers Sidney Crosby

CRANBERRY — Sidney Crosby says he didn’t have any particularly strong feelings, negative or otherwise, about the Philadelphia Flyers before breaking into the NHL in 2005.

“They always had pretty good teams, with (Eric) Lindros and (Mark Recchi) was there, and Johnny LeClair,” Crosby said Sunday. “They always had pretty competitive teams, so they were fun to watch.”

But if his perspective on that franchise hadn’t changed after his first month or so in the league, it certainly did on the evening of Nov. 16, 2005.

Emphatically and forever.

That’s the night, when Crosby was on his second professional trip to the far side of the Commonwealth, Flyers defenseman Derian Hatcher bloodied Crosby’s mouth and broke several of his teeth with a blatant high stick.

“I got introduced to (the rivalry) pretty quickly,” Crosby said, smiling. “There wasn’t much of a feeling-out process.”

Although Hatcher was not penalized for what he did, the Flyers have been paying for it ever since.

The first installment on their bill came due later that night, as Crosby capped a three-point game by scoring the game-winner in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 3-2 overtime victory at the Wachovia Center.

Indeed, when they held him off the scoresheet during Philadelphia’s 4-3 shootout victory at PPG Paints Arena Saturday, it marked the first time in 15 games that Crosby didn’t get at least one point against them.

And if he records a goal or assist in the back end of their home-and-home series Monday night at Wells Fargo Center, he will become the most prolific point-producer among Flyers’ opponents in that team’s history. For the moment, Crosby shares that distinction with another Penguins center of some renown, Mario Lemieux.

Should Crosby set the record — and he has been held point-less in consecutive games only once this season — it probably won’t be announced to the crowd. And if it would be, it’s safe to assume that it would be greeted by the same vulgar chant that breaks out numerous times whenever the Pittsburgh Penguins are in the building.

But while the hostility of the genteel folks in southeastern Pennsylvania toward Crosby never has abated, the intensity of what arguably used to be the NHL’s most ferocious rivalry has.

Witness the Flyers’ victory Saturday, when the teams combined for all of 18 penalty minutes, a total padded by a too-many-men infraction by Philadelphia with a minute to go in overtime. That was a time when a random shift between these teams could have produced that many violations of the rules.

A time when the only things higher than the emotion when the Penguins and Flyers collided were the elbows and sticks. (Just ask Crosby’s dentist.)

But the game has evolved and, in many ways, so have the Flyers. In recent years, they’ve put a lot more emphasis on acquiring players who can compete effectively at this level than on adding those who can’t do much more with their hands than make a fist.

Probably not a bad idea, given that the last time Philadelphia won a Stanley Cup, Gutenberg is purported to have printed the book commemorating the accomplishment.

Labeling the contemporary iteration of the Flyers “The Broad Street Bullies” makes as much sense as calling a Pirates team of recent vintage “The Lumber Company.”

Jeff Carter, a rookie with the Flyers during Crosby’s first season in the league, acknowledged how the rivalry’s edges have softened over the years.

“The game is so different now, right?” he said. “You touch somebody, you’re getting a penalty now. … It’s definitely not what it was, but it’s still in-state, so there’s still a little bit of that.”

But Carter made it clear that it’s nowhere near as nasty as it was a decade or so ago, when Penguins-Flyers games sometimes were tantamount to trapping two rabid wolverines in a cage.

“It was awesome,” he said. “Two good teams that had a lot of skill, and a lot of toughness. Every time we matched up, no matter where it was, it was a battle.”

Gesturing toward Crosby, he chuckled and said, “Just ask him.”

Carter smiled devilishly when asked for his recollections of the Hatcher-Crosby incident.

“I remember Sid getting up and screaming,” Carter said. “Blood all in his mouth, and whatnot. It was fun.”

Crosby agreed that the game is not the same as it was in his early days.

“The game has evolved and changed,” he said. “And with that, the rivalry probably has evolved a little bit.”

He added, though, that “I still think there’s a certain intensity that comes with those games. Hopefully, that stays the same for a long time. It’s special to have that.”

At least as special, perhaps, as having a complete set of teeth.