Physical play becoming a hit in Pittsburgh
Three years ago a winger named Petr Sykora signed with the Penguins because he wanted to play on a team with a trio of skilled centers in Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal.
Forward Mike Rupp found a different reason to join the Penguins this past summer.
"It was a team that was kind of annoying to play against," Rupp said of the Penguins, whom he joined over the offseason after facing them for years as a member of the Atlantic Division-rival New Jersey Devils.
"Annoying is, like, when you're playing the game, you're trying to accomplish an objective and you've got a guy skating from across the ice to hit you. That is going to put a kink in your plans."
The Penguins (23-10-1, 47 points) can put a kink in the plans of their most bitter rival tonight by beating the Philadelphia Flyers at Wachovia Center.
Beating might be the key word for Round 3 of the Commonwealth Cold War. The Flyers (15-16-1, 31 points) have won only three of 14 games and just two of seven since hiring Peter Laviolette to replace former coach John Stevens on Dec. 4 — and most Penguins expect tonight to resemble an NHL backyard brawl.
That expectation is not without justification. These clubs combined for three fights in a span of 16 seconds before six minutes had expired in a Penguins' home win on Tuesday night.
Since they entered the league together in 1967, the Penguins and Flyers have refused to play nice, and with consecutive playoff meetings the last two springs the nastiness of this rivalry has hit new heights.
Or depths; depending on how fans view Flyers winger Scott Hartnell allegedly biting the finger of Penguins defenseman Kris Letang in October or former Philadelphia winger Ben Eager accosting the Penguins' last coach, Michel Therrien, during Therrien's postgame meeting with the media two years ago.
Many Penguins believe the Flyers have one agenda in these showdowns.
"No team is going to push us around and intimidate us, and that's something they always try to do," defenseman Mark Eaton said. "I don't know if it's successful against some teams, but we're not going to back down — and it's a style we can play as well."
Rupp said the Penguins "played tough" under Therrien; but in coach Dan Bylsma's first full season they have proven capable of "winning any kind of hockey games."
"We'll go up-and-down the ice with teams if they want," he said, "but we'll get physical and play dirty hockey, and we're completely comfortable in those games, too."
Known for the top-shelf skill, especially in past scoring champions Crosby and Malkin, the Penguins began Wednesday as perhaps a surprising NHL leader with 974 hits. They rated fifth with 524 blocked shots, and their 14.4 penalty minutes per game were ninth most in the league.
Four Penguins rated among the league's top 21 hitters — the most of any club.
"Ours is more of a team toughness than an actual physical toughness," winger Chris Kunitz said. "It's been a gradual thing that's developed, but it's because we have guys that like each other and want to stick up for on another."
They especially want to do that against the Flyers, whom Eaton agreed appear easily frustrated when the Penguins have embraced answering the bell.
Counting eight wins in 11 playoff games the Penguins are 27-15-1 against the Flyers over the past five seasons, including 10-9-1 at Philadelphia, where they had previously won only 21 times (including the postseason).
Crosby believes the Flyers have inadvertently helped harden the Penguins.
"You get your feet wet pretty quickly, especially with a young group," he said. "It becomes a little more normal — even if you see a game like (Tuesday). You learn to get up for those games, what to expect, and that is good in preparing for anything."
Ranked first among NHL teams in hits and fifth in blocked shots as of Wednesday, the Penguins are trying to join rare company from this decade:
TEAM, SEASON: SHOTS RANK/HITS RANK
Canadiens, 2008-09: 5/3
Canadiens, 2007-08: 2/1
Rangers, 2006-07: 5/1
Islanders, 2003-04: 3/3
Avalanche, 2003-04: 5/5
Avalanche, 2002-03: 2⁄5
Avalanche, 2001-02: 1⁄2
Kings, 2000-01: 2/4
Note: All teams qualified for Stanley Cup playoffs. Only the 2002-03 Avalanche won at least two playoff rounds. No team advanced to the Stanley Cup Final.