Commentary

Penguins-Flyers series a war? That's the idea

Updated: May 9, 2008, 12:56 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

PITTSBURGH -- Every playoff series has a personality, an identity that evolves and matures as the series progresses. But before the puck drops on any series, there is only an idea.

And the idea of this highly anticipated Pittsburgh-Philadelphia Eastern Conference finals is that it's going to be war. If the "idea" of this matchup lives up to its billing, this will be "Gangs of New York" on ice. Get Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day-Lewis their skates and let's go.

That's certainly the idea of this series from the Flyers side of things as the series nears its Friday night kickoff.

"I think it's on the ice. We hate each other more," Flyers forward and Pittsburgh native R.J. Umberger said. "Great players on both teams, battling hard every night, we all want to win. If you want to be on top of your division or win a Stanley Cup, you've pretty much got to go through each other. You can't hide from each other."

This notion of two teams ready to engage in a tong war on ice plays to the Flyers' strengths, especially in light of the shocking news late Thursday that top defenseman Kimmo Timonen likely has been lost for the series with a blood clot in his ankle.

It's been part of the fabric of the team for more than 30 years. Even though the Flyers are the top-scoring team in the playoffs this spring, the rhetoric from their side of the state has been decidedly hawklike in the days leading up the start of the series. They have resurrected the well-worn "Did the Pens tank their last game of the regular season?" debate once again. There has been lots of discussion about the bad blood between Derian Hatcher and Sidney Crosby that has cost Crosby a couple of chicklets since he arrived on the scene three seasons ago. There has been plenty of discussion of the animosity shared by coaches Michel Therrien and John Stevens when both were coaching their respective AHL teams a few years back.

"It's always been pretty heated between the two of them. They're pretty competitive," Umberger said with a grin. "It's always been intense, and I think it will probably stay intense this year. This is probably something they both take personally against each other."

Philly's Stevens tried to downplay the powder-keg element of his relationship with Therrien.

"That's when I was a lot younger. I'm a little older now," Stevens said Thursday. "I said this the other day. I think if everybody likes you, you're probably not very good. I think a lot of teams liked us last year. They liked playing us last year. I think when you dislike each other, or there's emotion involved, it's probably because you have the other team standing in the way of where you want to go. I think that's the case here."

There is a line to be walked here for both coaches and teams as the rhetoric heats up. Too much, and the control over emotions is gone. Too little, and maybe the other team gets an early emotional lift.

"Well, I hope it's going to stay on the ice. That's the No. 1 thing. But we're part of a rivalry. We never know what's going to happen," Therrien said Thursday. "So as far as I'm concerned, he's a great coach and he's got a lot of success in the minors. He's the type of guy that will defend his players. And I'll do the same if I have to."

No question the Penguins' idea of this series and what it might become is markedly different.

[+] EnlargeEvgeni Malkin and Randy Jones
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarThe Flyers haven't been shy about playing physical against the Penguins, a trend that shouldn't change in the conference finals.

The Penguins insist they are unafraid of whatever the Flyers might bring to the buffet, but to get sucked into the, "Oh, yeah, we're pretty tough, too" debate is to lose the first battle before the first puck is dropped.

That's why the Pittsburgh crew is doing its best to wave an indifferent hand at the notion of vitriol and vengeance as if it were an annoying fly.

"You expect it to be physical, but that's the playoffs. We know that there's a rivalry, but as far as being afraid of anything, no," Crosby said. "I mean, you expect it to be physical and hard-nosed hockey, like most playoff series. But I don't think anything more."

Crosby, of course, has been one of the focal points of this pre-series, as he was before the Senators and Rangers series that preceded it. It's hard to imagine a playoff series involving Crosby and the Penguins in which he wouldn't be.

The Rangers tried to play "Let's get in Sidney's kitchen" before the start of the second round, murmuring about how he is a diver and embellishes calls. He'll no doubt hear the same, and probably worse, from the Flyers and their fans. Philly might be better off leaving Crosby alone, given that its badgering of the star forward has seen him respond with 37 points in 20 games against the Flyers.

Georges Laraque pointed out that before the Penguins-Rangers series, everyone was talking about Sean Avery.

"What's he going to do? What are you guys going to do?" Laraque recalled.

In the end, Avery was a nonfactor even before he suffered a lacerated spleen in Game 3.

Still, people revel in the negative stuff, including the idea that the Pens and Flyers are going to get medieval on each other.

"People, they want it so much," Laraque said. "Everybody's going to be so disappointed."

Veteran forward Gary Roberts has played in 123 playoff games. He's been part of the Battle of Alberta with the Calgary Flames and the Battle of Ontario with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Can anything good come from these pre-series confabs?

"No, no good," Roberts said. 'The bottom line is, the most disciplined team is going to win."

Even in the Flyers' camp, there is an acknowledgement of finding a place at the line but not crossing it.

"I've been saying it for the past week. I think that's going to be a key in this series," said Daniel Briere, the Flyers' playoff scoring leader. "The team that's going to be able to walk that line, that imaginary line, without crossing it too often has probably a better chance of winning."

But here's the thing. For all the talk, there is something about this series that is different from other conference finals of the recent past -- Ottawa-Buffalo, Carolina-Buffalo, Edmonton-Anaheim, Anaheim-Detroit. This series is suffused with history. These two teams came into the NHL at the same time more than 40 years ago. They share the same state, and that often means sharing an instant dislike -- a "This town's only big enough for one of us" Old West mentality. Both teams have enjoyed periods of dominance, with the Flyers winning back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1974 and 1975 and the Penguins snagging two in a row in 1991 and 1992.

Those days are long past, and both teams have followed the alpha wave from champion to the bottom of the pile at various points in between. The Penguins haven't been back to the Cup finals since 1992, when Mario Lemieux was a force. The Flyers haven't been there since 1997, when Eric Lindros and the Legion of Doom were swept by the Detroit Red Wings.

There are ample lines connecting these two teams, from the two Pittsburgh natives in the series, Umberger of the Flyers and Ryan Malone of the Penguins; the earlier battles between Therrien and Stevens; Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero's connection to the Flyers through his father, Fred Shero, the coach of the last Cup-winning Flyers team.

So, now they face each other with just four wins separating each team from a trip back to the big dance.

No wonder they can't wait to stop talking and start playing.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.