Penguins star Sidney Crosby and Pittsburgh open the 2012 NHL playoffs tonight at home against hated rival Philadelphia.
PITTSBURGH — Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin spent last spring watching their Pittsburgh Penguins teammates try to carry on without the injured stars, a burden that became too much during a seven-game loss to upstart Tampa Bay in the opening round.
A year later, the helpless feeling of trudging around in a suit while the franchise they expected to carry to a Stanley Cup floundered on the ice below them remains fresh.
The memory of the long ride down the elevator from the press box to the quiet dressing room following a listless 1-0 defeat in Game 7 is why Crosby never considered shutting it down this season despite a 15-month battle with concussion-like symptoms and Malkin became arguably the best player in the world while playing on a completely rebuilt knee.
Want To Watch?
WHO: Philadelphia Flyers at Pittsburgh Penguins.
WHAT: NHL playoffs, Eastern Conference opener for both teams.
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. today.
TV: NBC Sports Network.
It’s also why neither player is eager to engage in a war of words with rival Philadelphia in the run-up to Pittsburgh’s first-round meeting with the Flyers starting today.
The opponent is almost immaterial to two players used to writing “playoffs” on their calendar every season in ink, not pencil.
“I think, if anything, you just appreciate being in the playoffs even more,” Crosby said. “It’s not an automatic thing.”
Neither is getting past the first round for the NHL’s most potent team.
Pittsburgh enters the postseason with the league’s best record since Jan. 1 and a roster eager to bookend the Stanley Cup the Penguins won in 2009.
The players change but the mindset in Philadelphia does not. The Flyers are still aggressive, both on the ice and in front of a microphone.
Laviolette didn’t hesitate to call Pittsburgh’s Dan Bylsma “gutless” for sending out a checking line in the late stages of a 6-4 Philadelphia win on April 1, a move that led to a brawl following Joe Vitale’s punishing — if clean — hit on Philadelphia’s Danny Briere. Laviolette grew so incensed he smashed a stick over the boards and began trading barbs with Pittsburgh assistant Tony Granato.
The Penguins have tried to take it in stride, brushing aside all the chatter as gamesmanship.
Perhaps, but the Flyers have a way of getting underneath the skin of an opponent. Forward Scott Hartnell embraces the villain role better than any player in the league. He talked openly about wanting to punch Malkin, Crosby and defenseman Kris Letang in the face if given the opportunity and has predicted the series will turn into a “bloodbath.”
There are no such issues with the Penguins, where the core has been intact for several years. Yet the dynasty that looked almost inevitable after the club made the Cup finals in 2008 then won it the next year has not materialized.
It’s been three long years since Crosby hoisted sport’s most venerable trophy over his head in triumph. The road back begins in earnest today.
“We should be confident and knowing what our game looks like,” Crosby said. “I think the rewarding part is going out there and working hard and trying to earn it.”