In a playoff week filled with tropes of the modern game—head shots galore, a statement on the Kings' official Twitter feed that poked fun at the Canucks for their supposed unpopularity—there was at least one series that worshipped at the altar of old-time hockey.
The most-anticipated first-round series produced the most extraordinary game. For a second straight match the Flyers, who beat the Penguins 4--3 in overtime in Game 1, dozed through the first period but rallied to stun Pittsburgh 8--5 in Game 2 last Friday, a circa-1984 classic. The game featured hat tricks by Philadelphia star Claude Giroux (who had six points) and rookie Sean Couturier, two shorthanded goals by the Flyers and a goal 15 seconds into the match by Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, who, for the first time in his life, was omitted from the No. 1 power-play unit.
Except for mullets, this one almost had it all.
The kitchen sink finally arrived on Sunday when the series shifted to Philadelphia for Game 3. The Penguins, seemingly frustrated after falling behind due largely to slipshod goaltending from Marc-André Fleury, lost their collective minds. There were 72 penalty minutes in the first period, including a match penalty to Penguins winger Arron Asham for deliberate intent to injure Flyers center Brayden Schenn with a crosscheck to the throat. Pittsburgh's star defenseman, Kris Letang, and his Philadelphia counterpart, Kimmo Timonen, engaged in a secondary altercation that also led to game misconducts. But the highlight, or lowlight, was the first-period fight between Crosby and Giroux. There was probably a saner course of action for Crosby, who, famously, has had concussion problems, but he actually initiated the fisticuffs, issuing a "So, we'll go" invitation moments earlier when he and Giroux, another player with a concussion history, were engaged in a scrum. Giroux RSVP'd. They were the most notable playoff combatants since the Flames' Jarome Iginla and the Lightning's Vincent Lecavalier in Game 3 of the 2004 finals.
Amid the mayhem, the Flyers, behind two goals and an assist from center Danny Brière, won 8--4 to put themselves in position to sweep the consensus Stanley Cup favorite on Wednesday. Fear had trumped loathing for two clean games—"Both teams understand there's two of the best power plays here, and you don't want to be killing penalties," Brière said after Game 1—but the antipathy between the intrastate rivals, which spasmed during a 6--4 Philadelphia victory on April 1 when Flyers coach Peter Laviolette and Penguins assistant Tony Granato engaged in a screaming match while perched menacingly atop the dasher boards at their respective benches, was simply too dyspeptic to ignore. In the final five minutes, with Pittsburgh winger James Neal running amok, charging Couturier and then slamming into Giroux, more skirmishes erupted, including one between Hartnell and Crosby. The Penguins' Craig Adams, a Harvard man, stepped in to fight Hartnell. This was vitriolic hockey at its best—and worst.
Brière also scored twice in the opener, including a breakaway on which he was offsides by two feet. ("It looked good to me," said Brière, smiling.) Although earlier in his career he once answered to the nickname Sneaky, which was hung on him by Sabres teammate Chris Drury, Brière swears he earned the name for an ability to sneak around the net and get lost in the traffic. He chuckles when it is suggested it was a tribute to his ability to jab an opponent with his stick and avoid detection. The 5'10", 179-pound Brière has a face like a Sistine Chapel cherub, but his looks are as deceptive as a Giroux toe drag. "He's not the biggest guy, but he's never shied away from the tough areas," says Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik, whose seismic hit on Brière behind the net, called interference, led to the Flyers' tying goal in the third period of Game 1. Hartnell skated over to retaliate against Orpik, but Brière cautioned, "Hartsy, it's all right. We'll score on this power play."
Brière has not shied away from the toughest of times, the playoffs. Since the 2004--05 lockout he has 44 postseason goals (in 94 games), second to the 48 scored (in 91 games) by Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg. Of the players in the tournament with at least 50 postseason games, only four were averaging a point per game, and they all were in this series: Crosby (1.34) and Evgeni Malkin (1.18) for Pittsburgh; Jaromir Jagr (1.08) and Brière (1.01) for Philadelphia. Brière, who has averaged .79 of a point in 813 career regular-season games, is the only one in the group who actually increases his scoring rate during the playoffs, when tight checking makes for tight collars.
But even though Philly started the series with six rookies in the lineup, the team has seemed exceedingly relaxed, conspicuously confident. Couturier is the linchpin. Along with the fabulous Giroux, the 19-year-old is the face of the reconstructed Flyers. (Actually, with shaggy hair and three front teeth missing, he resembles the old face of the Flyers, Broad Street Bullies--era captain Bobby Clarke.) Matched principally against Malkin, Couturier limited the presumptive Hart Trophy winner to one even-strength point through three games. The Penguins' top line of Malkin, Neal and Chris Kunitz was --9 over that span.
In the aftermath of comeback wins against panicky Pittsburgh, Laviolette said he thought it spoke volumes about the character in the Philadelphia dressing room. He was referring to 20 players with character, not the 140 characters the Kings had available on Twitter to tweak the Canucks. Old-time hockey, baby.