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Flyers, Pens ready to rumble; Bad blood's on tap in playoff meeting

PITTSBURGH -- Scott Hartnell can feel the animosity the second the Philadelphia Flyers forward skates onto the ice at Pittsburgh's Consol Energy Center.

"There's a lot of hatred by the city against us," Hartnell said. "We thrive off that."

If the Flyers want to survive their first-round matchup with the Penguins, they don't really have a choice.

"It's going to be a bloodbath," Hartnell added, with a grin.

As usual.

The typical venom between the rivals will likely only escalate this time around. Pittsburgh has won each of the previous two playoff meetings, using victories in 2008 and 2009 as springboards to the Stanley Cup finals.

Throw in Philadelphia's addition of former Pittsburgh stars Jaromir Jagr and Max Talbot and the Flyers' coaching staff calling out the Penguins for dirty play and there's more than enough bile to go around.

The series starts on Wednesday night in Pittsburgh, where the Penguins have home-ice advantage in name only.

"I expect a pretty intense series," Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby said. "If anything prior to this is any indication, that's pretty fair to say. Those are the kind of series you want to be a part of."

Pittsburgh's 4-2 win over the Flyers in the regular season finale on Saturday was the calm before the storm. Save for a first-period fight between Philadelphia's Harry Zolnierczyk and Penguins forward Joe Vitale, both teams were on their best behavior.

The game was so calm Crosby felt compelled to call it "weird."

The Flyers are 5-1 at Consol since it opened in 2010 and their 25 road victories this season tied Boston for tops in the NHL.

Hartnell has a theory on why Philadelphia feels so comfortable at Pittsburgh's new barn, pointing to Consol's plush interior as opposed to cramped and outdated Mellon Arena.

"The fans aren't on top of you," he said. "It feels like you can just go out and play."

Something the Flyers have done better than most teams against the Penguins.

Philadelphia won four of the six regular-season meetings, often frustrating Pittsburgh's high-powered offense by taking away the space Crosby and Art Ross Trophy winner Evgeni Malkin need to operate.

The Flyers have the utmost respect for Crosby and Malkin, though with that respect comes a fair amount of anger.

"There's guys in [Pittsburgh] that you don't like," Hartnell said. "Obviously they're some of the best players in the league and you see them on the highlights every night and it annoys you."


Panthers try to exhale

SUNRISE, Fla. -- When the Florida Panthers were struggling down the stretch of trying to snap the longest active NHL playoff drought, those inside the locker room tried to insist everything was fine.

Turns out, the Panthers weren't being totally honest as they sputtered toward the finish line.

"It has been weighing on us," Panthers center Stephen Weiss said. "We wouldn't say it is, but you could just tell with some of our play. We'd seem to tighten up here and there. There was a lot of pressure having this 10, 12 years of not being in the playoffs riding on everyone's shoulders."

That pressure's gone now.

Even with just two wins in its final 10 games, Florida's 12-year postseason drought is no more.

Thanks to a 4-1 win over Carolina in the season finale, the first Southeast Division championship banner in franchise history will soon sway over the Panthers' ice, and they'll open the Eastern Conference playoffs at home Friday night against the New Jersey Devils. As if the wait for playoff hockey wasn't long enough in South Florida, the Panthers-Devils series will be the last of the eight first-rounders across the league to get started.

"You look at different snapshots of the season and there's been some highs and lows and we've gone through a stretch where we haven't had too many W's after our games recently," Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said. "And to finish the season with one, with such importance, I think is a great satisfaction."

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