This past weekend, the Flyers secured a crucial four points in the Metropolitan Division playoff race when they swept a home-and-home series with the cross-state rivals, the Penguins. The weekend proved to be a microcosm of the current state of the Flyers-Penguins rivalry. Although the chances that the Flyers can catch the Penguins are miniscule, the wins put some needed breathing room between the Flyers and their pursuers. They are one point ahead of the Rangers with two games at hand, and three points ahead of the Blue Jackets with the same number of games remaining, 14.
The Flyers-Penguins Rivalry: 2005-06 to 2008-09
In the early 2000s, the Flyers-Penguins rivalry had cooled down a bit considering how awful the Penguins were. Mario Lemieux was aging and consistently hurt, and Jaromir Jagr had moved on to the Washington Capitals. The rivalry received a needed jolt of energy when the Penguins won the 2005 draft lottery, and the right to draft Sidney Crosby. Crosby was immediately hated in Philadelphia, and was given a warm welcome to the NHL by Derian Hatcher, in the form of a bloody mouth his rookie year. Crosby did get the last laugh, however, scoring the overtime game winner later in the game.
The Penguins were the second-worst team in the league in 05-06, and the Flyers were the surprising worst team in the league in 06-07. By 07-08, both teams had established themselves as contenders. Crosby and Malkin were quickly establishing themselves as the best young players in the league, and the Flyers were fresh off a flurry of acquisitions that included Kimmo Timonen, Danny Briere, Scott Hartnell, and Marty Biron. They met in the Eastern Conference finals, and the Penguins advanced in 5 games over the Flyers, who were without their top pairing of Braydon Coburn (slapshot to the face), and Kimmo Timonen (blood clot) for much of the series. The Penguins would go on to lose in the finals to the Red Wings.
In 08-09, the bitter rivalry was renewed once again in the playoffs, this time in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. The Penguins got out to a commanding 3-1 series lead, but the Flyers fought back to make it 3-2 and were up 3-0 in Game 6, signaling an impending Game 7. However, the always undisciplined Dan Carcillo was goaded into an ill-timed fight by then-Penguin Maxim Talbot, and the Penguins had energy. They came roaring back, scoring five unanswered to win the series. The Penguins would win the cup that year, and it appeared the Flyers-Penguins rivalry was firmly controlled by Pittsburgh. Sidney Crosby seemed to relish playing the Flyers, scoring more points against them than any other team.
A Shift in Power: 2009-10 to Present
In 2009-10, the Flyers made the necessary move to fire John Stevens. He served his purpose as a mentor to a young Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, developing them into elite two-way centers. The Flyers needed a coach that could take them to the next level. They brought in Peter Laviolette, and with average goaltending, they probably would have won the Stanley Cup. The Penguins were eliminated in the second round.
To start the 2010-11 season, the Penguins opened Consol Energy Center, leaving the run-down Mellon Arena that had served as their home since 1967. After struggling against the Penguins in previous years, Consol Energy Center proved to be very friendly to the Flyers. In his first career NHL game, in the first game in the arena, Sergei Bobrovsky went in and stole the win for the Flyers.
Since that day, the Flyers haven’t looked back. From the 2010-11 season to today, they have gone a remarkable 10-2-1 in games at Consol Energy Center, in the regular season and playoffs. They seem to feed on the hostile crowd, and get up for games playing in enemy territory. Their winning percentage is a remarkable .769%. For a comparison, the Flyers’ winning percentage in the regular season in that time span is just .546%, a 41% decline. The Flyers’ overall record in that time span is an impressive 16-8-2 against the Penguins.
The Flyers Have the Penguins’ Number
As impressive as the Flyers’ winning percentage is against the Penguins recently, even more impressive is how they’re doing it. The Flyers have been able to knock the Penguins off of their game, forcing them to play their style and at their tempo. They have capitalized on coach Dan Bylsma’s inability to make in-game adjustments, hitting the Penguins hard and often, and dictating the game. The Penguins have gotten visibly frustrated, taking their frustration out on the Flyers in the form of penalties. There were James Neal’s two dirty hits on Sean Couturier and Claude Giroux, a charge and a flying elbow. Then there was Arron Asham’s crosscheck to the face of Brayden Schenn after a hard, clean hit.
The epitome of this frustration came when Crosby got in a fight in Game 3 of the 2011-12 Eastern Conference quarterfinals, taking himself off the ice when he was much better off helping his team on the ice. These same frustrations were evident this past weekend. When the Flyers got up early and started hitting the Penguins, the Penguins took a number of retaliatory penalties, including one by Evgeni Malkin, digging themselves into an even bigger hole. The Flyers get under the skin of the Penguins like no other team in the league.
A big part of it is the stifling defense played by Sean Couturier. Previously, Couturier had been assigned to check Evgeni Malkin, which he had done very successfully. But this past weekend, Craig Berube thought he was up to the task of checking Crosby, and he flourished. Not only did Crosby not register a point the whole weekend (only the third time this season Crosby has gone multiple games without a point), Couturier’s line actually generated more offense than Crosby’s.
In the past, the Penguins’ excuse has been the poor play of Marc-Andre Fleury. On the contrary, if it wasn’t for Fleury the results this past weekend would have been significantly worse for the Penguins. Until the Penguins start to show discipline and can play their game, the Flyers will continue to dominate the Flyers-Penguins rivalry.