Pittsburgh and Philadelphia are similar to Buffalo and New York. Pittsburgh for generations was known for its 9-to-5 jobs, for its industry and down-to-earth people while Philadelphia was the beast on the other side of the state. Philly would thumb its nose at Pittsburgh, but it would mean acknowledging its existence.
Pittsburgh is reluctant to admit its inferiority complex about Philly, but Philly has no problem sharing its superiority over the 'Burgh. Philadelphia has an edge that can be found in its peculiar love-hate affair with its sports teams. Pittsburgh has undying affection for its teams despite fans cringing over the Pirates.
Their two hockey teams, both of which entered the NHL in 1967, are a different story. The Penguins play under brighter lights with Sidney Crosby, the face of the NHL, and Evgeni Malkin, the likely most valuable player this season. The Pens have won three Stanley Cups while the trophy has eluded the Flyers since they beat Buffalo in 1975.
Pittsburgh's in-state rivalry with Philadelphia ran deep long before the two teams squared off April 1 on national television in Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh. It intensified with an exchange of cheap shots and fights among players and irate Flyers coach Peter Laviolette screaming at Penguins assistant coach Tony Granato along the bench.
It was beautiful.
NBC analyst Pierre McGuire, who was working between the two benches when the brawls broke out, had Laviolette and Granato in stereo. McGuire, the former Hobart College football and hockey player, was a scout and an assistant coach for two years in Pittsburgh. He won the Stanley Cup both years, in 1991 and 1992.
"It's been something that has been festering since 1967," McGuire said by telephone Tuesday. "The players change and the coaches change but the organizational philosophy doesn't change. If you're in Philly, we don't like Pittsburgh. If you're in Pittsburgh, we don't like Philly. It's a big part of what's gone on in those two towns in hockey forever."
Tonight, the two teams square off in what should be the most entertaining first-round playoff matchup in years.
The other two series starting tonight are in the Western Conference. Detroit visits Nashville while Los Angeles plays Vancouver. The Canucks are looking to return to the finals after losing to the Bruins in seven games last season.
Philly-Pittsburgh is the one most worth watching..
"There's never been any restraint on either side in terms of the scoreboard, in terms of the antics, in terms of the shenanigans," McGuire said. "They're two teams that have chosen to dislike one another, and they have for a very long time."
Maxime Talbot, a fan favorite in Pittsburgh years before he scored the Cup-winning goal over Detroit in 2009, signed with the Flyers as a free agent last summer. He counts Crosby among his closest friends.
"I'm sure hate will come out in this series," Talbot told reporters. "It's going to be a hard battle."
Jaromir Jagr won two Cups with the Penguins and considered signing with them when he returned this year from Russia. Instead, he signed with the Flyers. Daniel Briere could return for the series opener. He missed the final three games after Penguins forward Joe Vitale flattened him with a check that led to 52 minutes in penalties April 1.
"We don't like them," Crosby said. "They don't like us."
It makes for great theater but also great hockey between the Atlantic Division rivals who finished fourth and fifth in the Eastern Conference standings. Four other first-round series begin Thursday. New Jersey visits Florida to start their playoffs Friday. Here's a closer look at the matchups that begin tonight.
>Pittsburgh (4) vs. Philadelphia (5)
Penguins update: Crosby is back in high gear after missing 60 games with concussion problems that began last season. He had eight goals and 37 points in 22 games. Malkin led the league in scoring with 109 points, including his first 50-goal season. James Neal has proven he is the Real Deal. He shattered previous career highs with 40 goals and 81 points this season. Look out for Jordan Staal, the most underrated center in the NHL. Marc-Andre Fleury had a career-high 42 wins this year.
Flyers update: Claude Giroux had a career-high 28 goals and 93 points and was an MVP candidate until Malkin pulled away late in the season. Scott Hartnell thrives on being a pest, but he had 37 goals and 67 points this year. Jagr remains a force at age 40. Briere had his way against the Sabres last season. He has 40 goals and 93 points in 91 playoff games since the lockout. The big question revolves around goaltending, as usual. Flaky netminder Ilya Bryzgalov, inconsistent this season, has won one playoff series in his career.
Outlook: This tight matchup could come down to special teams. Pittsburgh was better in both areas during the regular season. Look for the Penguins to win in seven games.
>Nashville (4) vs. Detroit (5)
Predators update: Management made moves at the deadline with the idea the Preds can win the Stanley Cup. They finished second in a difficult division with 104 points, two more than the third-place Red Wings. It's a typical Nashville team, balanced offensively and wrapped around goalie Pekke Rinne. Leading scorer Martin Erat had 58 points, which ranked him 63rd in the NHL. But they also have two of the best defensemen in Shea Weber and Ryan Suter. Rinne was 43-18-8 with a 2.39 GAA and .923 SP.
Red Wings update: Detroit won three of the first four meetings between the two teams before losing the final two in March. The Wings still have an effective and experienced core that knows how to win in the playoffs. You know about Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Nicklas Lidstrom & Co. Johan Franzen is one who often makes a difference in the postseason with his presence around the net. He and Todd Bertuzzi are big bodies who can cause big problems. Jimmy Howard is a top 10 goalie.
Outlook: Motown or Music City? It depends on taste. The Red Wings are flashier but have enough grinders and grit to make a difference. Wings fans are worried about this one, but I'm taking Detroit in six games.
>Vancouver (1) vs. Los Angeles (8)
Canucks update: They're still stinging from losing the Cup in Game Seven at home and have been on a mission all year. They won eight of their final nine games, while missing concussed Daniel Sedin for all but one of them, en route to the Presidents' Trophy. Henrik Sedin had only 14 goals but had 81 points, his fourth straight season with 80 points or more. Ryan Kesler, who hasn't been right all season, had 22 goals and 49 points. Goalie Roberto Luongo can't afford another meltdown.
Kings update: L.A. is capable of shutting down Vancouver. The Kings allowed the second-fewest goals (179), behind St. Louis (165), in the NHL. Goalie Jonathan Quick was superb all year. Their biggest problem is scoring; their 198 goals were the fewest among playoff teams and second-fewest in the league this season. Jarret Stoll has never been a big scorer, but he had six goals and 21 points in 78 games. Dustin Penner had seven goals and 17 points in 65 games. Mike Richards and Jeff Carter must show up.
Outlook: The Kings can steal this series if they can get their power play working and Quick maintains his play from the regular season. On a hunch and little else, I'm picking an upset with the Kings winning in six games.