The Pittsburgh Penguins and the Philadelphia Flyers have a home-and-home series this weekend in what is sure to be two hard-fought games between these heated divisional rivals. It is a rivalry that has spanned decades, starting back when the two teams entered the National Hockey League (NHL) in 1967. The rivalry, dubbed “The Battle of Pennsylvania”, splits the state in half whenever the two teams meet. The eastern half consists mostly of Flyer fans, while the western half is occupied mostly by the black and gold jerseys of Pittsburgh fans. The rivalry is renewed and reignited this weekend with additional fire behind it, as the Flyers attempt to grab a hold of a divisional playoff spot, only one point behind the New York Rangers and the Columbus Blue Jackets. Pittsburgh holds the number one spot in the Metropolitan division and would love nothing more than to be the ones that keep their rivals out of the playoffs.
The Battle of Pennsylvania did not start out as much of a battle. In fact, “beatdown” would have probably been a more appropriate terminology. When both teams first entered the league in the late 60s, they quickly found themselves on opposite ends of the standings. The Flyers thoroughly manhandled the league, winning the Stanley Cup in both the 73-74 season and the 74-75 season. The Penguins, on the other hand, became the league’s doormat, barely finishing out of the basement of the standings until the mid 80s. The rivalry was almost completely one-sided, as Pittsburgh went on a 42-game winless streak against the Flyers in their home arena, the Spectrum.
The fates of the two teams flipped when the Penguins drafted legendary forward Mario Lemieux in the 1984 NHL Entry Draft. A combination of speed, size and skill, Lemieux quickly became the saving grace for a struggling Pittsburgh franchise, who had been surrounded by rumors of relocation for years. The forward led his team to the playoffs in 1989, where the Penguins and the Flyers met in the playoffs for the first time. The series went to seven games, ending in a Flyers victory, but it was this series that provided a spark to dying rivalry. Pittsburgh would grow into a powerhouse team over the following years, acquiring superstar talent to surround Lemieux. The Flyers would acquire a superstar of their own, Eric Lindros, whose hard-nose style exemplerated the style of the Flyers at the time. It also caused Lindros to become the poster boy for a growing concussion issue in the NHL.
Led by Lemieux, Pittsburgh would win the Stanley Cup in 1991 and 1992 and looked well on their way to a third when tragedy struck. Lemieux announced on January 12, 1993 that he had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of cancer that required high dose radiation treatment. He put his career on hold to receive the treatment, returning to the game two months later. On the last day of his treatments, he suited up to join the Penguins in a match against the Philadelphia Flyers. Before the game, he received a standing ovation from the Flyers faithful, putting the rivalry aside, at least for that moment. When Lemieux announced his retirement after a playoff series loss to the same Flyers in the 1997 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, he again received a standing ovation from the Philadelphia home crowd.
The rivalry cooled again as the Penguins, with the loss of Lemieux, struggled to find much success on the ice. With attendance plummeting, Pittsburgh again struck gold in the NHL draft in 2005, drafting Sidney Crosby with the No. 1 overall pick. Crosby was one of the mostly highly touted prospects to ever enter the league, nicknamed “The Next One” from an early age after the idea that he could be equal to Wayne “The Great One” Gretzky. Crosby was the leader the Penguins needed after accumulating high draft picks over the previous years drafts, including Russian superstar Evgeni Malkin in the 2003 draft and Canadian goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury in the 2002 draft. The taunts and jeers of needing to “tank to win” from the Flyers fanbase only served to strengthen the fires of the reignited rivalry.
The Flyers would rebuild their team through the draft during these same years, drafting centers Mike Richards and Jeff Carter in the 2003 draft and superstar forward Claude Giroux in the 2006 draft. Giroux and Crosby would eventually become the faces of their respective franchises, both seen as young, shifty centers with tons of skill and natural-born leadership abilities.
In the 2006-2007 season series, the Pittsburgh Penguins won all eight games against the Flyers, marking only the third time it has been accomplished in the series between the two sides. The Flyers laid claim to the other two successful attempts. The following year, the Penguins and the Flyers met in the 2008 Eastern Conference Finals ending in a 5-game series victory for Pittsburgh. It was the first time Pittsburgh had won a playoff series against the Flyers, a feat they would repeat the next year in the 2009 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. That victory eventually led to the Penguins hoisting their third Stanley Cup in franchise history.
The recent history of the rivalry reached its peak in early April of 2012. Late in a 6-3 game favoring the Flyers, a solid clean check by Pittsburgh forward Joe Vitale sent Flyers forward Daniel Briere to the ice. The hit led to a full-on line brawl between the players on the ice and led to Flyers coach Peter Laviolette and Pittsburgh assistant coach Tony Granato climbing up on their respective benches and yelling across to the other side. The Flyers would win that game 6-4, but not before Laviolette and many players from both sides were kicked out of the game. The league would hand out fines to both coaches and the organizations for altercation.
This year, the two teams have faced each other twice, each taking one game. Pittsburgh won the first meeting, 4-1, in mid-October, with Crosby getting an insurance goal late in the third period to make the score 3-1. The Flyers responded almost a month later on November 13, getting 30 saves from goaltender Ray Emery in a 2-1 Philadelphia victory. Now, this weekend, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Philadelphia Flyers will face each other on back-to-back nights, providing what is sure to be another exciting chapter in the renewed rivalry of the Battle of Pennsylvania.
This article is one in a daily series, providing coverage, analysis and predictions for NHL fans.
Commentary by Jonathan Gardner
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