Flyers Have Lessons to Learn from Rival Penguins

The Philadelphia Flyers and the Pittsburgh Penguins will clash in one of the best natural geographic rivalries in the NHL on Thursday night. Both teams own sizeable, devoted fan bases in the two major markets of the state of Pennsylvania, and they have faced off as division foes in every season since 1998. The rivalry came to life when Sidney Crosby began his career in Pittsburgh in 2005. It peaked between the 2007-08 and 2011-12 seasons when the two teams played three playoff series in five seasons. 

The cross-state rivals played on a relatively even level despite Pittsburgh’s top-notch star power. The Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009, and the Flyers advanced to Game 6 of the Cup Final in 2010. However, following a memorable opening-round playoff series in 2012, the respective franchises headed in completely different directions.

Flyers, Penguins Worlds Apart

The Flyers missed the playoffs in 2012-13 for just the second time in 18 seasons while the Penguins advanced to the Eastern Conference Final. Throughout the following five seasons, the talent level of Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Marc-Andre Fleury proved far superior to a Flyers roster handcuffed with expensive contracts for underperforming players that couldn’t provide suitable depth behind top-line forwards like Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, and Wayne Simmonds. They were still able to frustrate Pittsburgh with occasional regular-season upsets, but the Penguins undoubtedly held the cards for a brighter future.

Claude Giroux of the Philadelphia Flyers, Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Penguins moved on from head coach Dan Bylsma after the 2013-14 season and quickly moved on from his replacement Mike Johnston in December 2015. Both coaches had trouble synergizing the world-class superstars on the roster into an effort that could withstand the intense demands of tight-checking playoff series. 

The Penguins struck gold when they hired Mike Sullivan as Johnston’s replacement. The newly-hired head coach led the Penguins to his first Stanley Cup in 2015-16. Phil Kessel joined Crosby, Malkin, Kris Letang, and Chris Kunitz on a team that overwhelmed opponents with offensive firepower. Sullivan made a gutsy call to replace Fleury, the franchise goaltender, with rookie Matt Murray in the playoffs. The Penguins finally reached their potential as an NHL juggernaut in the same season that a makeshift Flyers roster went down in six games against a more talented Washington Capitals team in the first round.

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In 2016-17, the Penguins repeated as Stanley Cup champions. They joined the Chicago Blackhawks as the only other team to win three Cups during the 21st century. Matters became worse for Philadelphia in 2017-18. They faced Pittsburgh in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs with a chance to renew the rivalry, but their cross-state rivals embarrassed them by putting up an astounding 25 goals in their four victories on the way to a series win in six games. While the Penguins held the bragging rights, the Flyers promised their fans that prospect development and a patient approach would soon pay off.

Continued Success for Sullivan, Penguins

The competitive rebuild during Ron Hextall’s tenure as general manager (GM) of the Flyers looked like it would net the organization with a young core, including highly-touted goaltending prospect Carter Hart, who could finally re-establish the team in Stanley Cup contention. Meanwhile, whispers of a potential rebuild swirled in Pittsburgh after a loss in the opening round of the 2019 Playoffs and a qualifying round loss in the bubble during the 2020 Playoffs. 

Evgeni Malkin Pittsburgh Penguins
Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Philadelphia captured a playoff series win in 2020 for the first time in eight years. They opened the 2020-21 season with consecutive victories over the Penguins. Aging superstars Crosby, Malkin, and Letang looked like they could be moving on when GM Jim Rutherford abruptly resigned in January 2021. Hextall placed Rutherford in a twist of fate. The Flyers finally looked poised to take over as the superior NHL franchise in the state of Pennsylvania.

Sullivan had other ideas. The two-time Stanley Cup winner has held an aging Pittsburgh roster together despite a long list of injuries and a thinning pool of talent. He led the team to a tie for the top spot in the temporary East Division last season. They extended the league’s longest active streak of playoff appearances to 15. 

Elliotte Friedman recently summarized Sullivan’s message on the 32 Thoughts podcast about spoke about his incredible ability to keep the Penguins in contention. 

“We’re not doing ‘woe is me’ here. We’re playing, and this is how we’re going to have to play, and this is how we’re going to have to win. Those guys all buy in.”

-Elliotte Friedman

The Penguins beat the St. Louis Blues on Wednesday night and extended their current winning streak to nine games. They currently sit in the first Eastern Conference wild-card spot with 43 points, 11 more than the Flyers with one fewer game played. 

Sullivan has found ways to put players in the best position to succeed without maxing excuses. Malkin hasn’t made his season debut yet. Crosby, Letang, and Jake Guentzel have all missed time with injuries. They entered the season with major goaltending questions. Tristan Jarry has been outstanding between the pipes during the first half of the season. Evan Rodrigues has gone from a castoff of the Buffalo Sabres to the second-leading scorer on the Penguins with 28 points in 32 games this season.

Flyers in Different Circumstances 

The situation in Philadelphia came crashing down in March 2021, when the Flyers limped through a brutal 6-10-1 stretch and fell out of playoff contention. A series of shrewd offseason moves by GM Chuck Fletcher looked like they could help right the ship, but a 10-game losing streak cost head coach Alain Vigneault his job in December. The Flyers will need an improbable comeback in the second half of the 2021-22 season to avoid missing the playoffs for the sixth time in the past decade. 

Carter Hart
Carter Hart, Philadelphia Flyers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The organization has squandered its chance to overtake its rival franchise because of a lack of resilience in the types of circumstances that the Penguins thrive in. A big focus of Fletcher’s offseason was adding veteran leadership and character to the Flyers, but the additions haven’t materialized into a winning effort. The team regularly had trouble maintaining energy when facing deficits early in games during the recent 10-game losing streak. 

The Flyers lack the type of “no excuses” mentality that Sullivan has implemented in Pittsburgh. The disparity in resilience between the two teams is best demonstrated by the struggles of the Flyers top defensive pair. Before last season began, veteran Matt Niskanen retired. The entire blue line fell apart in 2020-21 because nobody was able to take on an expanded role and replace him. The same problem has persisted this season with the extended absence of Ryan Ellis. While the Penguins find ways to win without a great player like Malkin in the lineup, the Flyers can’t overcome the obstacles in their path.

Interim head coach Mike Yeo spoke after the Flyers loss to the Anaheim Ducks on Tuesday night.

“Obviously, we’re in a position where we’re not afforded the luxury of being frustrated and getting down. We have to just keep fighting and keep pushing and keep getting better and trust that you’ll get rewarded, whether it’s the results in that particular game or whether it’s the results for our group over a longer period of time.”

-Mike Yeo

The newly-appointed bench boss echoed Sullivan’s theory, but the Flyers will need to put that theory into practice if they hope to change the course of a franchise that hasn’t won a Stanley Cup in nearly half of a century.