The Evolution of the Battle of Pennsylvania


Spanning almost 50 years, the heated rivalry between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Philadelphia Flyers has been one of bad blood, star power, and an unrelenting competitive spirit.

The Battle of Pennsylvania began in 1967 in a low-scoring affair at the old Philadelphia Spectrum arena. Flyers tender Doug Favell would post a shutout, kicking off a period of dominance in Philadelphia that included a 42-game, 15-year-long stretch from 1974 to 1989 in which the Pens couldn’t buy a single win in Philly.

Mario Lemieux’s arrival before the 1984-85 season began to tip the scales in Pittsburgh’s favour, however. The two clubs met in the playoffs for the first time in 1989. In Game 5 of the series, Lemieux, who had been questionable to appear in the game at all, broke four NHL records as he scored 5 goals in the game (4 in the first period alone) and finished with 8 points total. Pittsburgh would win the game 10-7, but would lose the series in 7 games.

Philadelphia would take the next two playoff series against the Penguins as well in 1997 and 2000, but it was Pittsburgh who would finish on top in the championships tally, as the Penguins won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992.

While Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr continued to pile up points, Philly finally got their own star in 1992 when Eric Lindros debuted with the team. Lindros would go on to win the Hart trophy and Lester B. Pearson award in 1995. Lemieux and Jagr would combine for 4 Hart trophies and 11 scoring titles over the course of their careers.

The beginning of the Sidney Crosby era in Pittsburgh flipped the script in terms of the team’s success against their in-state rivals. The 2006-07 season saw Pittsburgh top Philadelphia in all 8 meetings, as Crosby went on to win the Hart trophy and Art Ross.

Crosby’s dominance in Pittsburgh led the Penguins to two consecutive playoff series victories over the Flyers in 2008 and 2009 – the first two series wins against Philadelphia in their history.

It was in 2011 that the modern iteration of the Battle of Pennsylvania took shape, however. Former Penguin icon Jagr made his return to the NHL, and in doing so returned to Pennsylvania as well.

Except he chose the Broad Street Bullies over the club he formerly captained, donning Philly’s orange sweater and forming a Penguin-irking partnership with the Flyers’ brightest new star, Claude Giroux.

Jagr’s Pennsylvanian betrayal continued on seemingly without end, culminating in the former Penguin referring to Giroux as “Little Mario Lemieux”.

The fact that this came alongside Giroux’s rise into the league-wide spotlight, including his ascension to the Flyers’ captaincy, would catapult the rivalry to an entirely new level – one that was never more evident than in the 2012 Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series that featured the two clubs once again.

In one of the most captivating series in playoff history, the two adversaries would trade dominating performances – including an 8-5 victory for Philly in Game 2 and a 10-3 victory for Pittsburgh in Game 4. All the stars came to play in this one. Giroux finished with 3 goals and 6 points in that Game 2 win for the Flyers, and Pittsburgh’s Game 4 drubbing featured goals and three points apiece from each of their Big Three (Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jordan Staal)

Giroux and Crosby took the meeting one step further, translating the rivalry from one of two clubs to one of two captains. Their mutual dislike culminated in a shouting match that turned into fisticuffs in Game 3 of the series. Crosby would get the better of Giroux with a swift uppercut that dropped the Flyers captain, but Giroux would get his revenge three games later when he landed a crushing check on Crosby that rallied his team to a series-clinching victory.

Mar 9, 2013; Toronto, ON, Canada; Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (87) acknowledges the fans after being named star of the game after defeating the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre. The Penguins beat the Maple Leafs 5-4 in the shootout. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

It was an emblematic performance for both teams, and an important lesson for the still-young Penguins, who discovered that their most significant vulnerability is their intense dislike for their rivals to the East, as it was this emotion that got Pittsburgh off their game.

Now two years removed from that historic series, both teams remain in flux, unsure of how legitimate their chances at a championship truly are.

Philadelphia followed up the 2012 series by missing the playoffs, and then subsequently getting eliminated last season by the New York Rangers in 7 games. Pittsburgh found a little more success in the season following the 2012 series, but it ended just as disappointingly as they were swept by the powerhouse Boston Bruins. The next season, they were similarly bounced from the postseason by the Rangers – also in 7 games.

While the two teams finished with nearly identical postseason results last season, the careers of their two captains have gone in wildly different directions. While Giroux saw a drop in his numbers and a snub from Team Canada for the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Crosby ascended even higher, winning a Hart trophy, a Ted Lindsay trophy, an Art Ross trophy, and captaining that Canadian team to an Olympic gold medal.

Advantage Pittsburgh.

This season again finds the two clubs in very similar positions, however. Both underwent significant offseason changes, including the trading of a former key offensive piece, as the Pens shipped out former sniper James Neal and the Flyers parted ways with Giroux’s bash brother Scott Hartnell.

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  • As well, both lost key personnel on the back end, with the Penguins losing Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen to free-agency, and Philly losing longtime defensive anchor Kimmo Timonen to a long-term injury situation.

    Despite these similarities, the two started the season on tracks running in opposite directions. Pittsburgh shot out of the gate with three wins in their first four, before dropping their last two. Philadelphia, on the other hand, lost four straight to start the year, but has now managed two wins in their last three contests.

    Though Pittsburgh has boasted much stronger play thus far, and appears to be a more lethal team on paper, it was Philadelphia who came out with a victory in the teams’ first meeting of the season.

    The two are inextricably linked, not simply by geography, but rather by a shared history of unrelenting competitiveness. It is no longer about which team is the strongest in Pennsylvania.

    It’s about Crosby and Giroux. It’s about Malkin and Couturier. It’s about Crosby’s dislike for Voracek, about him ‘not liking any guy on their team’.

    The Battle of Pennsylvania remains the most captivating, electric, and emotionally-heated rivalry in hockey, perhaps in any sport, and with these teams being led by players who are only now beginning to reach their prime, it doesn’t figure to fizzle out any time soon.

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