Jeanine Leech/Icon SMI)
For the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, the playoffs appear to have unofficially started yesterday afternoon when the Flyers beat the Penguins 6-4 in a physical, back-and-forth matchup.
As the regular season winds down, the Penguins and Flyers remain ranked fourth and fifth respectively in the Eastern Conference, and consequently are all but guaranteed to face each other in the first round of the playoffs. This fact not lost on either team yesterday as both teams finished every check and seemed to be pushing and shoving after each whistle.
The animosity between the two rivals finally boiled over in the last few minutes of the game, starting with a nasty crosscheck from Brayden Schenn to the back of Sidney Crosby. Penguins forward Joe Vitale responded several minutes later with a brutal, but clean, open-ice check on Danny Briere.
Almost immediately following Vitale's hit was a massive brawl on the ice. Tensions escalated to a point where Flyers coach Peter Laviolette and Penguins assistant coach Tony Granato got into such a heated shouting match that the two appeared to be close to fisticuffs, with both eventually getting kicked out of the game. The game then got further out of hand when Flyers forward Zac Rinaldo and Aaron Asham tried to engage in a fight before the drop of the next puck, with the two also getting escorted off the ice. In all, the incident caused 52 penalty minutes to be handed out, including eight unsportsmanlike penalties.
After the game, Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma was asked to explain what may have spurred the Flyers coach into frenzy.
"There was a 1:10 left or so on the clock. We went out and played," Bylsma said. "They took exception to a hit and 10 guys joined together near the center of the ice. From what I can gather their coach didn't like the hit [by Vitale on Briere] and took a stick and broke it over the glass. That stick ended up in our bench."
Laviolette was not quite as measured in how he expressed his feelings. "Those guys hadn't played in 12 minutes," said Laviolette of the Penguins fourth line of Vitale, Asham, and Craig Adams. "It was a gutless move by their coach, just gutless."
If the playoffs didn't unofficially start for the two teams yesterday, they will almost certainly start on April 7th, when the two faceoff for the last game of the regular season.
Atlantic Division Notes
New Jersey Devils - The Devils will continue to battle for the sixth seed in the playoffs when they host the New York Islanders on Tuesday, then go off on the road to visit the Detroit Red Wings Thursday. After struggling to score goals for much of March, the Devils have outscored opponents 11-4 in their last two games.
New York Islanders – The Islanders will open the week visiting the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday. They will then come home Thursday to play the Winnipeg Jets. They wrap up their season in Columbus on April 7th.
New York Rangers - The Rangers will have to play three teams playing some desperate hockey when they visit the Flyers and Penguins on Tuesday and Thursday respectively. The Blueshirts will wrap up the week when they host the Washington Capitols Saturday in what could very well be a preview of their first-round playoff matchup.
Philadelphia Flyers - The Flyers will host the Eastern Conference-leading New York Rangers Tuesday night and the sinking Buffalo Sabres Thursday. They will then finish off the regular season by visiting the Penguins Saturday. Defenseman Nicklas Grossman left the first period of last night's game after a vicious collision with Penguins center Joe Vitale. Grossman needed considerable help getting back to the Flyers dressing room and did not return.
Pittsburgh Penguins - The Penguins have three games left this season, all of which should prove to be a challenge. They visit the Boston Bruins Tuesday, and then close out the regular season by hosting the Rangers on Thursday and the Flyers on Saturday. Winger Pascal Dupuis extended his league-leading point streak this season to 14 games when he notched two assists in the Penguins 6-4 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers. In that span, Dupuis has nine goals and 10 assists.