We pick up our story in the middle of the 1999-2000 playoffs, where Andy Delmore scored an overtime game winning goal, and the Flyers managed to find their feet in the series...
Then, it happened.
Perhaps the most famous overtime game winning goal in Flyers history occurred in one of the longest games in NHL history. In the fifth overtime of the game, Keith Primeau sent the Flyers home victorious from Pittsburgh and evened the series at 2-2.
The Flyers would ride the momentum they gained from this game back with them to their home ice, where they quickly put six goals past Pittsburgh, and beat them the next game as well away from home to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they would ultimately lose to the New Jersey Devils as Eric Lindros’ attempted comeback went horribly wrong.
On the whole, this series was perhaps even more physical than the previous series in 1997. If anything, the prior years served as build up to the physicality we would see during the entire 1999-2000 season.
What’s even more unbelievable is that this brawl is from the regular season. The animosity between these two clubs had reached a new high, and it was a toss up between the Penguins and Devils as to who was the Flyers’ biggest rival at the time.
After this period, the Flyers-Penguins rivalry would die down as both clubs went through personnel changes. During the early 2000’s, the trading of Eric Lindros to the New York Rangers heated that rivalry for a brief period, and the Penguins’ loss of Jaromir Jagr helped them transition into a terrible hockey team, as they failed to make the playoffs from 2001-02 to 2005-06.
Throughout the history of these two franchises’ existences in the context of each other, it seems as if when one club becomes terrible, they suddenly win a gift that propels them forward into the next era of greatness. The Flyers discovered their Broad Street Bullies identity in the 1970’s and won the rights to trade for Eric Lindros in the early 1990’s, whereas the Penguins were bought and saved from financial ruin, and were also able to draft Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr.
However, the Penguins’ next gift was none other than the 1st overall pick in the 2005 NHL draft.
The 2005 NHL draft was unique in that it was a draft based on performances from a season that never happened. The NHL conveniently decided to have a lockout for the 2004-05 season, and as such, there were no standings to base draft positions on. Instead, a weighted lottery was conducted, with playoff appearances and previous holdings of the #1 overall pick being used in the weighting. This process was dubbed the “Sidney Crosby Sweepstakes”, since Crosby was the obvious first overall pick. He had just led his junior team to a Memorial Cup Final in 2005, and possessed scoring numbers that would make NHL GMs’ eyes water. It was clear that Crosby was going to be a special talent in the NHL.
So, obviously, the Penguins, who were once again on the brink of crisis, win the draft lottery and the right to draft their heir apparent in Crosby. That worked out pretty well, didn’t it? When your next superstar apparent leads your franchise to three Stanley Cups, of course it worked out.
Regardless, the drafting of Sidney Crosby marked the start of a newer, much nastier era of the Flyers-Penguins rivalry. From the start of the 2005-06 season, until after the 2011-12 season, both the Flyers and the Penguins would be consistently good (for the most part), and they would meet each other in the playoffs a total of three times during what we will term the “Crosby Sucks” era of this rivalry.
There was no disputing that the Penguins were the Flyers main rivals during this era. From the moment Crosby played his first game in Philadelphia, the tone was set.
Flyers defenseman Derian Hatcher (this may be his only redeeming moment as a Flyer, in truth) pummeled Crosby into the boards, sending the rookie forward into a tirade which earned him a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct. These actions, combined with the fact he scored the overtime winner in that game, instantly turned him into a villain in the eyes of Flyers fans. If there’s one thing that is a given among Flyers fans, it’s that they appreciate a hard working talented player who would give their all for the team. While Crosby certainly gives his all for the Penguins, his tendencies to embellish and complain to officials draws condemnation from Philadelphia crowds.
That type of behavior simply won’t pass in Philadelphia, and Crosby only made it worse for himself when he was quoted after a 2012 game against the Flyers saying “I don’t like them, I don’t like any guy on their team.” Naturally, this led to the Flyers giving out this t-shirt the following game:
While Sidney Crosby may be the primary antagonist from this era, he is far from the only one. Players such as Kris Letang, Chris Kunitz, Evgeni Malkin, and Matt Cooke were easy to hate, and Flyers fans sure did hate them. With the amount of players who irritated Flyers’ fans, Crosby’s comments, and three playoff matchups between 2008 and 2012, the rivalry was about to reach its high point.
The first of these playoff matchups occurred during the 2008 playoffs. The surprise Flyers, who turned themselves around from being the worst team in the NHL in 2006-07, found themselves facing the young but powerful Penguins in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Unfortunately for the Flyers, however, they would be eliminated in five games in what would turn out to be a rude awakening for an upcoming Flyers team. The series could get quite physical at times, with the Flyers pretty clearly trying to send a physical message (led by intense players like Mike Richards). However, it was pretty clear that the Penguins were the better team. This would be the first time that the Penguins would win a playoff series against the Flyers.
The very following year would see the Flyers and Penguins meet once again in the playoffs, this time in the first round of the Eastern Conference bracket. However, once again the Penguins would emerge victorious. The Flyers this time around, however, took the series deeper than they had previously, nearly forcing a game seven. However, Max Talbot engaged the Flyers’ Daniel Carcillo in a fight which sparked the Penguins, and they scored five unanswered goals to take game six and win the series.
This series was once again quite physical, with multiple cross checks and stick infractions sliding by, yet as we know, the choppiness would not yet reach its height (side note that the Penguins were quite the thorn in the Flyers’ side for the past few seasons, eliminating them twice in the playoffs and sweeping all their matchups in 2006-07).
That height would come in their first round matchup of the 2012 playoffs.
In late 2011, both the Flyers and Penguins resisted efforts by the NHL to realign divisions so that the two clubs would be in separate divisions. Representatives from both teams spoke out against those proposals, citing the importance of the rivalry to both the teams and fans, which also serves as prophetic given the events that were to follow.
Perhaps fueled by the Flyers signing a franchise legend of the Penguins in Jaromir Jagr, in addition to fan favorite Max Talbot, the Penguins came into this series thirsty for blood. Well, while those two acquisitions certainly would have helped fuel the fire, this helped even more:
A late hit in a regular season game on the Flyers’ Daniel Briere sparked a line brawl that resulted in Flyers’ head coach Peter Laviolette jumping off the bench to shout at Penguins’ assistant coach Tony Granato. It’s an incredibly iconic moment that embodies just how much mutual hatred both of these franchises had for each other at this point.
So, headed into the playoffs, there was bound to be bad blood and craziness, and craziness there was. The series featured the most goals (45) scored through the first four games of a playoff series in NHL history, as well as a host of fights and fines.
In game three, Penguins’ coach Dan Bylsma was fined due to Craig Adams’ fight instigating penalty which occurred in the final five minutes of the game. Two other Penguins were also suspended, and the Flyers drew several penalties throughout this hectic game.
This was the tone that the series took on. It less resembled hockey and more so resembled roller derby mixed with hockey. Goaltending and defense in general were pushed aside for plenty of goals, hits, and fights. It featured the animosity between Flyers’ fans and Penguins players reaching what many consider a boiling point (apart from during the 2018 playoffs when photos of Sidney Crosby appeared in urinals at the Wells Fargo Center). Flyers fans didn’t simply hate Sidney Crosby in this series, they were out for revenge.
This Claude Giroux hit on Crosby says it all:
The Flyers ended up winning the series in six games before falling to the New Jersey Devils in the next round.
The next time the Flyers would meet the Penguins in the playoffs would be in 2018, though this series wasn’t much of a contest. The Flyers only won two games because Claude Giroux and Sean Couturier dragged them to victory. The Penguins pretty much owned the Flyers in every other aspect.
Unfortunately, this quality of play has defined the rivalry over the past few seasons after 2011-12. The Penguins have been excellent, winning Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017, while the Flyers have only won a single playoff round after that 2012 series against Pittsburgh.
While at the beginning the rivalry was one sided to the Flyers’ favor, the opposite has occurred in the mid to late 2010’s. The Flyers’ Stadium Series victory against the Penguins in 2019 stands out as a memorable moment, especially with Claude Giroux’s gladiator style celebration after the game winning goal.
However, other than this, the Flyers haven’t had many memorable “rivalry” moments against the Penguins. Their relationship with each other has primarily been “Penguins are good, Flyers are bad” while the latter have been in a whirlwind of a retooling. The rivalry still certainly exists, however, the animosity of the late 2000’s and early 2010’s has dissipated considerably.
So, where does that leave the Flyers-Penguins rivalry now?
Well, just as alive as ever in the eyes of Flyers’ fans. Though Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin will both be out to start the season, this doesn’t mean that the Philadelphia faithful will have any less of a reason to boo when those black and yellow jerseys present themselves on the ice. In recent seasons, the Penguins’ ability to find talent seemingly out of nowhere, as if they’re NHL video game generated players (Teddy Blueger, to name an example) has irked Flyers fans, as the Flyers’ scouting and development system has produced far less success.
In many ways, however, the rivalry at the moment feels more centered around Penguins fans hating the Flyers. Though the only lens of analysis for this phenomenon comes through one’s memory, and an eye test, think about the number of “1975” tweets from Penguins fans over the course of the late 2010’s and early 2020’s. Sure, revenge is a dish best served cold, and perhaps Penguins fans are simply eager to get some Philadelphia hatred out of their system. However, the Flyers haven’t been good during this time of abject derision. It simply doesn’t make sense.
This rivalry is simply better when both teams are good, and for that to become a reality, the Flyers need to prove that they can stand up to the heavyweights of the Eastern Conference, and the Penguins need to prove that their ageing superstars are still able to carry them to victory.
The Flyers-Penguins rivalry is objectively one of the best rivalries in all of North American professional sports, right up there with Yankees-Red Sox and Eagles-Cowboys. When both teams are able to put up a fight against each other, there is purely nothing more exciting to love to hate.
We love to hate Sidney Crosby, not just because he is a great hockey player, but because of all the comments he has made in the past. We love to re-ignite the flames of the past, from Kasparaitis to five overtime victories. The Flyers-Penguins rivalry isn’t always at its peak at any given moment during a season, but when it is, there simply is nothing like it. Flyers fans are desperate to have an expectation and not just a hope that we’ll be able to frustrate Sidney Crosby and remind him why he had so much contempt for the Flyers.
This is why Flyers fans are so desperate for another playoff run. We relish being able to have these historic rivalries live up to the anticipation. Sure, it would be fun if the Flyers swept the Penguins every time we see them, but at that point, it would no longer be a rivalry.
The main point remains the same: There is purely nothing more exciting to love to hate than the flightless birds from across the state.
You can watch the Flyers take on the Penguins for the first time in the 2021-22 season on ESPN+ this Thursday.