Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Flyers-Penguins preview

by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor

Insofar as any December game can truly be a referendum on the direction two teams in the same division are headed, the red-hot Pittsburgh Penguins (21-8-2) and Philadelphia Flyers (19-7-5) will renew hostilities for the fourth time this season and for the second on South Broad Street.

The visitors are slicing through this portion of the schedule like fire on ice recently, and they carry a 12-game win streak into Tuesday’s contest – the longest for the franchise since their NHL-best 17-game clip from March 9-April 10, 1993.

Meanwhile, the Flyers have kept pace with unusually consistent play of late. Despite having lost three of their last four home games, the Orange and Black enter play with a 4-0-1 record in their last five overall.

The lone blip on the radar was that desultory 5-4 shootout loss last Wednesday to San Jose which saw Peter Laviolette’s club painfully surrender a three-goal, third-period lead and then have a potential game-winning OT goal wiped out because the puck didn’t cross the line before time expired.

Of course, the wild card in the proceedings is Penguins captain Sidney Crosby.

Taken under the wing of franchise icon/savior Mario Lemieux, Crosby must have been taught three valuable lessons by Number 66 since entering the league in 2005:

1) Get involved in the community,

2) Whine to the officials at every turn, and

3) Torture the Flyers every chance you get.

The 23-year-old certainly has done that over the course of his five-plus year career. Coming into the contest, Crosby has ripped Philly for 26 goals and 60 points over 35 regular-season matchups. If that weren’t enough to worry about, the 2009 Stanley Cup winner carries with him an 18-game scoring streak – one off his career best of 19 from October 6-November 17, 2007.

Oh, and also…he happens leads the NHL with 26 goals and 51 points.

So, the stakes are higher than they’ve ever been for the defending Eastern Conference champions, and the tenor of the matchup harkens back to a previous generation when Mike Keenan had his hands full trying to fend off the Washington Capitals seven times a year and then Wayne Gretzky plus the Oilers for three more games each season.

Back then, the Patrick Division saw tense battles between the likes of Kerr, Propp, Poulin, Howe and McCrimmon against Gartner, Carpenter, Christian, Langway and Stevens. The Penguins-Flyers rivalry has now reached a point of equilibrium with those of the middle 1980s with both teams seemingly at their respective peaks at the same time.

Crosby and, presumably the return of Evgeni Malkin from a knee injury present a challenge to Mike Richards, Chris Pronger and a rotating cast of checkers on Tuesday in the same way that the Sutter Twins, Rick Tocchet, Poulin and Brad Marsh needed to put a wet blanket over the NHL’s top talent 25 years ago.

Laviolette’s club has a chance to put to rest several demons with a victory.

First, there’s the matter of having lost six in a row on home ice to the Penguins since claiming a 6-3 victory on December 13, 2008. Pittsburgh took the lone previous matchup here, a 5-1 decision on October 16.

Then, there’s the matter of the Pittsburgh win streak. Should the Flyers end the run, it would mark the first time the club ended a league-best double-digit win/undefeated streak by an opponent since halting the Edmonton Oilers’ NHL-record 15-game unbeaten string (12-0-3) to start the 1984-85 campaign.

On that night, November 11, 1984 at the Spectrum, Ilkka Sinisalo notched the game-winner with 3:27 left in regulation and Brian Propp hit the empty net to seal a 7-5 triumph over the defending Stanley Cup champions.

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