Penguins forced to get physical on Flyers
PHILADELPHIA — Justice may or may not come from the NHL office in Toronto. History suggests it would be ill-advised to hold your breath waiting.
The Flyers got their justice on the scoreboard Sunday, beating the surly Pittsburgh Penguins, 8-4, and virtually assuring themselves of a berth in the second round of the playoffs.
"We've been talking about that the whole series," said Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen, who was uncharacteristically ejected for fighting. "We're not going to get any favors from the referees or league or whatever. We have to be the ones to stay disciplined. ... If they think they're going to win that way, it's not working for them."
It's a shame, really. Games 1 and 2 of this series were thrilling, memorable hockey games. There was little of the expected extracurricular idiocy, and that was something to applaud.
Then Sidney Crosby changed the channel to a WWE steel-cage match.
The feeling here has always been that Crosby's reputation outside the 'Burgh is overblown, as much a product of his success as his reputed cheap shots and referee-lawyering. That point of view is unpopular with Flyers fans. Trust me.
But Crosby earned every epithet that has been hurled at him in the first period of Game 3 Sunday. Incapable of leading his choking team to wins despite early leads, Crosby the captain resorted to leading this series into the gutter.
Crosby started a scrum behind the Flyers net by chopping at goalie Ilya Bryzgalov's glove after he'd covered the puck and the whistle had been blown. Then he reignited things into a full-blown melee by flicking Jakub Voracek's glove away as Voracek leaned over to pick it up.
Timonen took exception, so Penguins defenseman Kris Letang went after Timonen.
"If he gets in a scrum, they're obviously going to be all out there," Timonen said. "They're going to make sure he's not the one (who fights)."
Except Claude Giroux made sure, this time at least, that Crosby did. The Flyers' best player dropped his gloves and engaged Crosby. If Giroux wasn't already beloved by Flyers fans, this would have sealed the deal.
It would have been one thing if that had been the end of it. But it was the start. Taking a cue from their captain, the Penguins took a series of cheap shots at various Flyers targets. Arron Asham cross-checked Brayden Schenn up high, then pounded his head into the ice. James Neal launched himself at Sean Couturier in the third period, then took another shot at Giroux.
If there is a sentient being in the Toronto offices, perhaps he has noticed that many more than 1,000 former NFL players have filed lawsuits against that league for its handling of concussions over the decades. This hasn't happened in hockey yet, but it's only a matter of time.
So here's the test for commissioner Gary Bettman and his czar of discipline, Brendan Shanahan. Saturday's playoff games were marred by similar dangerous cheap shots. Now here were the Penguins, all but finished in this series, trying to disable some of the league's future stars with outrageous head shots.
Precedent is mixed. Nashville's Shea Weber skated, literally, after a dangerous head shot. On Sunday, the NHL suspended the Rangers' Carl Hagelin three games for a nasty head shot to Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson.
If Asham or Neal play again in this postseason, it will appear the league considers player safety secondary to satisfying the blood lust of some fans. That's going to look really bad when the class-action suits are filed.
"If you look around, the whole playoffs, it's been like that," Timonen said. "It's not just our game. I watched games last night, and it's been like that. ... If you can hit guys without the puck nowadays, that's dangerous."
Let's be clear here. The Flyers aren't dewy innocents competing for the Lady Byng instead of the Stanley Cup. This is a violent game, and who knows what misdeeds they might have gotten up to had the situation been reversed? But this series had been a compelling case for hockey as a contact sport, not a cheap-shot sport, until Crosby changed the temperature.
"They've got to do what they've got to do, I guess," Giroux said.
The Penguins' tactics will not help them in this series. But getting through them, and having their star put himself on the line for his teammates, will help the Flyers long after they've finished Pittsburgh off.
"One of (Giroux's) greatest assets is his competitiveness and his will to win," Flyers coach Peter Laviolette said. "It's the best I've ever seen. It's a guy who won't stop, won't quit. Just a tremendously competitive player."
On prouder days, the same could be said of Crosby. Not on this shameful Sunday, however. During the long stoppages, while the referees sorted out the 148 penalty minutes, Flyers fans chanted, "You can't beat us," at the Penguins.
It was true, and it was sweeter justice than any hit the Flyers could deliver.