If you asked 10 random people to name the best rivalry in sports, you might get 10 different answers. If you polled 10,000 Pennsylvania hockey fans on the same question, you would get the same answer from every one of them.
The Pittsburgh Penguins and the Philadelphia Flyers will clash tonight in the final outdoor contest of the 2016-17 NHL season, and regardless of the teams’ very different playoff scenarios, this game will be a memorable one.
Pittsburgh and Philly have not seen one another since late October, but with both teams idle since Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively, they’ve had a few days to allow any pent-up emotion to rise to the surface in anticipation of this historic meeting. With mere hours until puck-drop, I felt it would be appropriate to examine this rivalry from the perspective of both teams’ fan bases. I’ve also included a little throwback to when this war reached its boiling point five years ago.
“We Don’t Like You Either”
Talk to any Flyers fan about the Penguins, and there’s a pretty high probability of him or her saying something negative about captain Sidney Crosby. The rivalry between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia may have existed long before Crosby ever donned the black and gold, but his arrival in the Steel City gave it a whole new look. Crosby has been an incredibly polarizing figure (as most high-profile athletes tend to be) throughout his career, and as the old adage goes, you either love him or hate him.
I don’t like to make umbrella statements, but if there was ever one I felt safe saying, it’s this: Flyers fans hate Sidney Crosby.
The City of Brotherly Love’s response to this infamous interview following Game 3 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals was an admittedly appropriate one: Flyers fans sported shirts at Game 4 reading, “Guess What? We Don’t Like You Either!”
Philadelphians never liked Crosby to begin with, but he solidified his place in their hearts and minds as a “whining crybaby” with those comments. The hatred shared among all Flyers fans for the Pittsburgh Penguins begins and ends with no. 87, and there is virtually nothing that will alter their perception of the two-time Stanley Cup champion.
A Long-Suffering Fan Base
Fans of the Philadelphia Flyers need no reminders of how long it’s been since their beloved squad last raised Lord Stanley’s Cup. The Broad Street Bullies are a thing of the past in actuality, but the drought the Flyers are in right now must make that era seem like an even more distant memory.
In fact, the city of Philadelphia has held just one championship trophy across the four major professional sports in the last 34 years, and the team responsible for it was the 2008 Phillies. Worse than that number, however, is the number of times the city has come close to winning multiple championships. The Phillies and Eagles both had several years of consistent success earlier in the 21st century, but were only able to win that one title between the two of them.
Also among these close calls were the upstart 2009-10 Flyers, who made the Stanley Cup Final as the seventh seed in the East before their Cinderella run ended in devastating fashion at the hands of Patrick Kane and the Chicago Blackhawks.
What kind of drought is more emotionally draining for a fan base? Is it one where your team is totally irrelevant for many years, never even giving you a glimpse of hope? Or is it one where your team reaches the brink of glory on several occasions only to come up tragically short each time?
There are arguments to be made on both sides, but one thing that is not up for debate is that Philadelphia fans have become an understandably restless bunch as a result of the general lack of success among their professional sports franchises.
This restlessness is only amplified by the championship-caliber hockey that the Penguins have been playing over the last decade. The era that began when players like Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury and Kris Letang came into the league undeniably tipped the hockey scale in Pennsylvania to the western side of the state.
The failures that Flyers fans have had to live through are bad enough on their own, but are compounded by the fact that their arch nemeses have raised the Stanley Cup twice in eight years. Add in the fiercely-debated contention that the Penguins only acquired the players responsible for those Cups through the art of “tanking” in the early 2000’s, and of course Flyers fans hate them.
All Good on the Western Front
Whether there is some level of envy at play on the part of the Flyers’ faithful is a matter of mere speculation, but one thing you won’t hear from anyone in Pittsburgh is an apology for the Penguins’ success. Contrary to Philadelphia, the city of Pittsburgh has enjoyed decades of sustained and repeated greatness in professional sports, and the Penguins have played an irrefutably vital role.
The Penguins’ place at the opposite end of the spectrum from the Flyers is one of the many elements of this rivalry that makes it so compelling. On one side you’ve got a starving franchise that would do just about anything to shed its four-decade curse, and on the other you have a franchise playing in a place joyfully referred to by its inhabitants as, “The City of Champyinz.”
Why, then, is this rivalry so important to Penguins fans? Why worry about a team that’s struggling just to tread water when you’ve got a team full of players laughing their way to the hall of fame?
Perhaps Crosby’s struggle to find the words himself in the interview above is a reflection of the answer to this question as well. Crosby was visibly and understandably frustrated at the 3-0 series deficit his team faced at the time of that interview, but one can’t help thinking that being down 3-0 to the Flyers made it so much worse.
And that’s precisely how the Penguins’ fans felt at the time, too. The Penguins were supposed to win the Stanley Cup that year. How dare a ragtag team like the Flyers stand in their way? Pittsburgh fans didn’t believe that Flyers team belonged on the same ice as their powerhouse lineup, and that sentiment remains today.
As a result, it’s almost as if fans of the black and gold view the rivalry as a chance to remind the Flyers of their place in the NHL.
Ruffling the Penguins’ Feathers
Of course, there is almost no truth to the idea that the Flyers somehow belong in a lesser league than the Penguins. Yes, Pittsburgh has been a perennial Stanley Cup contender over the last decade, but the Flyers have had some competitive teams as well.
One particular aspect of the game the Flyers have excelled at in recent years is getting under the skin of Pittsburgh’s star players. Early in their careers, the book on Crosby and Malkin was: if you can get them wound up, they’ll lose their focus and come unraveled. The Flyers perfected this, and it infuriated Penguins fans and players alike.
This pesky style of hockey is not only an effective means of derailing another team’s game plan; it can also cause things to take a very personal turn. As a fan, you’re inevitably going to form a pretty strong opinion on the guys in enemy colors taking runs at your best players. You will, in all likelihood, never meet the players on the ice, but that doesn’t stop you from screaming at your television in defense of the player on your team tangled up with a guy on the opposition.
The Flyers’ uncanny ability to evoke these kinds of emotions from Penguins fans is yet another reason this rivalry is so great. The Penguins are at their best as a controlled burn, and the Flyers are a thousand gallons of unattended gasoline.
The Series Heard ‘Round the World
I’ve briefly touched on the 2012 playoff series featuring these two teams, but now it is time to revisit that six-game bloodbath in more detail. The first-round contest, which ended 4-2 in favor of the Flyers, was more of a falls-count-anywhere match than it was a series of hockey games. It truly was the all-time pinnacle of the rivalry, and when it came to frustrating the Penguins’ top players, the Flyers painted their masterpiece.
From a pure hockey standpoint, the series was as wild and entertaining as any in recent memory. The two teams combined for 56 goals in six games, with two eight-goal performances by the Flyers and one 10-goal showing from Pittsburgh. The Flyers erased several deficits, including a 3-0 hole to win Game 1 in overtime. Both teams might as well have played with empty nets, as the two main starting goalies (Fleury and Ilya Bryzgalov) posted some incredibly embarrassing save percentages.
If it weren’t for all of the mutual hatred on display, the wacky scoring patterns might have been the most memorable thing about the series. The first two games were intense, physical and violent. It all went up in flames in Game 3, a remarkably heated contest that included over 150 penalty minutes and several ejections.
Things have died down a bit since that series for the ages, mainly because it’s just completely unreasonable to play hockey that way on a regular basis. The Penguins are a far more disciplined team today than they were five years ago. Evgeni Malkin is still as much of a hothead as anyone in the NHL, but Crosby has matured significantly. The Flyers still play a very physical brand of hockey, but they have also evolved as the NHL has slowly phased out a good bit of that unnecessary extracurricular activity.
Still, every hockey fan in Pennsylvania remembers exactly where they were when this series transpired. Will we all be able to say the same about tonight? There’s only one way to find out. Watch the game, America.