Gene J. Puskar, Associated Press
PITTSBURGH — Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin spent last spring watching their Pittsburgh Penguins teammates try to carry on without the injured stars, a burden that became too much during a seven-game loss to upstart Tampa Bay in the opening round.
A year later, the helpless feeling of trudging around in a suit while the franchise they expected to carry to a Stanley Cup floundered on the ice below them remains fresh.
The memory of the long ride down the elevator from the press box to the quiet dressing room following a listless 1-0 defeat in Game 7 is why Crosby never considered shutting it down this season despite a 15-month battle with concussion-like symptoms and Malkin became arguably the best player in the world while playing on a completely rebuilt knee.
It's also why neither player is eager to engage in a war of words with rival Philadelphia in the run-up to Pittsburgh's first-round meeting with the Flyers starting Wednesday.
The opponent is almost immaterial to two players used to writing "playoffs" on their calendar every season in ink, not pencil.
"I think, if anything, you just appreciate being in the playoffs even more," Crosby said. "It's not an automatic thing."
Neither is getting past the first round for the NHL's most potent team.
Pittsburgh enters the postseason with the league's best record since Jan. 1 and a roster eager to bookend the Stanley Cup the Penguins won in 2009. They're healthy. They're surging. And they're wary.
They should be.
The Flyers won four of the six meetings between the two teams this season and are 5-1 at Consol Energy Center since it opened in 2010, the lone loss coming in a meaningless regular-season finale last Saturday.
Not bad for a team rebuilt on the fly.
Philadelphia traded popular veterans Jeff Carter and Mike Richards following a second-round loss to Boston last year, yet barely missed a beat.
Newcomers Brayden Schenn and Jakub Voracek became instant contributors. Former All-Star Jaromir Jagr showed his tank wasn't empty at age 40 after spending three seasons playing in Russia. Goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov signed a nine-year contract worth $51 million to give the position some stability and overcame a shaky start to be "a rock" according to coach Peter Laviolette.
"They play a similar style, they have depth," Crosby said. "I don't see a lot of differences."
The players change but the mindset in Philadelphia does not. The Flyers are still aggressive, both on the ice and in front of a microphone.
Laviolette didn't hesitate to call Pittsburgh's Dan Bylsma "gutless" for sending out a checking line in the late stages of a 6-4 Philadelphia win on April 1, a move that led to a brawl following Joe Vitale's punishing — if clean — hit on Philadelphia's Danny Briere. Laviolette grew so incensed he smashed a stick over the boards and began trading barbs with Pittsburgh assistant Tony Granato.
The Penguins have tried to take it in stride, brushing aside all the chatter as gamesmanship.
Perhaps, but the Flyers have a way of getting underneath the skin of an opponent. Forward Scott Hartnell embraces the villain role better than any player in the league. He talked openly about wanting to punch Malkin, Crosby and defenseman Kris Letang in the face if given the opportunity and has predicted the series will turn into a "bloodbath."
Maybe not the best thing for a team that's down a few pints.
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