Phil Sheridan: Blood already boiling as Flyers face Penguins in first round of NHL playoffs

Posted: April 07, 2012

PITTSBURGH - If the NHL playoff format were more rational, two of the top five teams would not be meeting in the first round.

"That's the way the schedule in the NHL is," Flyers winger and Penguins legend Jaromir Jagr said after Saturday's dress rehearsal game. "You look at the points and it probably shouldn't be these two teams playing against each other in the first round. But we can't do anything about it. One team's going to go home."

In this instance, we should probably be grateful for the lack of reason. It is providing an opening-round matchup with more passion and history than most. And yes, either the 103-point Flyers or the 108-point Penguins are going to be eliminated early.

Fair? Heck no. Fascinating? Heck yeah.

Some series, it takes a game or two for the tension to build, for the two teams to develop what the players call "hate" (and which probably is actual hate in this case). That will not be the problem here. This blood pressure reading will be sky-high before the first puck drops.

"It's going to be a battle," Flyers forward Scott Hartnell said. "It's going to be a chess match. It's going to be hard, it's going to be intense. I'm sure there will be a lot of blood."

Both of these teams, and their coaches, deserve immense credit for the regular season that ended here. The Flyers made huge offseason changes, then lost captain Chris Pronger early on to concussion-related issues. They have relied on rookies, endured a crisis in goalie confidence and still managed to finish the season strong.

The Penguins had their own injury plague, including the concussion and neck problems that cost them Sidney Crosby for most of the season. But they were pushing the Rangers for the No. 1 seed in the East until the final week.

So you have two talented teams that have already endured a lot to get here. And you have an embarrassment of the subplots that raise playoff series to the level of high drama.

Jagr won two Stanley Cups with the Penguins. The most recent was 20 years ago, when he was the age Brayden Schenn is now. But Jagr chose the Flyers over the Penguins when he returned to the NHL after his European sabbatical. The Yinzers have not forgiven him, which is why he gets booed here the way Crosby gets booed in Philadelphia.

"The last playoff series I played (in 2008, as a Ranger) was against Pittsburgh," Jagr said. "Then I took three years off and now I'm here, back again."

Jagr was booed after scoring a goal Saturday, but now everything escalates with the stakes.

"That's probably what I missed the most, the playoffs in NHL," Jagr said. "It's great excitement for the players and for the fans. Every game is on TV and the fans follow the hockey. You can change a series with one great play or you can lose a series with one bad mistake."

A long run in the Stanley Cup playoffs is as grueling as anything in team sports. It will be interesting to see how the young Flyers - Schenn, Sean Couturier, Marc-Andre Bourdon among them - handle their first time through. Young legs will no doubt help.

But for the Flyers to get past the Penguins and push on toward May, they need their older guys to come through: Danny Briere and Kimmo Timonen and, yes, Jagr. He said he felt as strong and healthy as at any time this season, which is good.

"It's going to be a tough series," Jagr said. "They're going to be the favorites. A lot of experts say they're the best team in the league. It's going to be a great challenge for our team."

If the NHL based its playoff seeding strictly on points rather than favoring division champions, the Flyers would be the third seed instead of the fifth. They would be opening up against Ottawa, which finished the season with 10 fewer points than the Flyers. And they would have home ice for the first round.

That would be easier. It would be fairer, since stronger teams would have a better chance to advance and meet in later rounds.

But Ottawa? That would be one of those series that would take a game or two to develop a personality. There would have to be a controversial hit or an outlandish quote before the blood started to rise.

That won't be a problem here. Flyers and Penguins. Crosby and Malkin. Giroux and Jagr. Hartnell and Matt Cooke.

"It isn't very hard to get your blood boiling for those guys," Hartnell said.

You can make a strong, logical case for seeding the other way. But forget logic. The playoffs are finally here.


Contact Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844, psheridan@phillynews.com, or @Sheridanscribe on Twitter. Read his blog, "Philabuster," at www.philly.com/philabuster. Read his columns at www.philly.com/philsheridan

 

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