PHILADELPHIA — With mayhem breaking out across the National Hockey League playoffs, it was only a matter of time before the fever reached Philadelphia.
The Flyers and the Pittsburgh Penguins had spent two games playing crazy hockey, but it had to do with skating and scoring and comebacks and goals. That stayed. The fever set in.
And it was the Penguins who melted down, perhaps irrevocably, in an 8-4 loss to Philadelphia that gave the Flyers a 3-0 series lead, in a game full of dumb penalties, team-wide defensive malfeasance, terrible special teams, and worst of all, outright headhunting.
"They were going after a couple of our guys' heads," Flyers winger Scott Hartnell told reporters after the game. "It's scary when it comes down to that level. You ask the best player in the world, Sidney Crosby, what they're thinking over there. 'That's playoff hockey.' For me, that's not playoff hockey, that's not hockey in my book. That is dangerous hockey. They were just trying to hurt people."
If playoff hockey games are religion in Montreal, they are post-apocalyptic religion in Philadelphia, and some players seemed as bloodthirsty as anybody in the crowd.
The worst of it came late, after the Flyers took a 7-4 lead, and Penguins all-star winger James Neal took a run at rookie Sean Couturier near the Flyers' blue line. The puck wasn't close, and Neal launched his shoulder into Couturier's head. He was not penalized, and on the ensuing play he took a run at the head of Flyers all-star Claude Giroux, who could not keep his feet afterwards and fell like a boxer who was about to be counted out.
Earlier in the game Brayden Schenn had charged at Paul Martin, and Penguins tough guy Arron Asham skated over and cross-checked the Flyers rookie in the throat, and then punched him as he lay face down on the ice. It was a disgrace.
"I didn't even mean to hit him," Neal said of the Couturier hit. "I don't know if the puck was in his feet; I think it was... I let up as much as I could."
"We're playing playoff hockey," Crosby said. "They're doing the same things we are."
Laughable assertions, in this game. Only one team was clearly headhunting. This was the franchise whose star player, Crosby, is the face of the league's concussion issues, and whose owner, Mario Lemieux, wrote a letter deriding the New York Islanders for doing just this in 2011.
"I don't think they're calculated, but there are some guys running around that usually don't do that," said Flyers defenceman Kimmo Timonen, who was thrown out for fighting Kris Letang in the wild first period. "I don't know why you change your game for the playoffs, I don't like that. But if they think they're going to win that way, go ahead and do it."
Underlying all this is the fact that the Penguins, who compiled the league's fourth-best record in the regular season, have come apart at the seams. Before Game 3, defenceman Letang had said, "We'll see the true face of our team. And I think we'll see if guys have character, and we'll prove a lot."
Or not. The first period alone took more than an hour to play, and was a bonfire. Crosby fought Giroux. Letang fought Timonen, and both men were ejected. Asham attacked Schenn. All that, along with the first four goals, all came in the game's first 15 minutes of play.
Crosby, Giroux and Letang suffered concussions this season, as did Schenn. And yet Flyers coach Peter Laviolette gushed over the two stars trading punches.
"I loved it. I thought it was great," Laviolette said. "In the end, that's really playoff hockey, isn't it? Two of the best players in the world dropping the gloves and going at it. Would I rather he have his gloves on? Sure. But when he's fighting Sidney Crosby, that's playoff hockey. That's this series."
— Postmedia News