Philadelphia Flyers\' Harry Zolnierczyk (29) fights with Pittsburgh Penguins Joe Vitale (46) during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Pittsburgh Saturday, April 7, 2012. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
PITTSBURGH, Pa. - 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 post-season 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 defenceman 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.
Briere missed the final week of the regular season with a sore back after taking the hit from Vitale. Defenceman Nicklas Grossman also went out with a lower body injury sustained in the first period of the April 1 meeting and remains day-to-day.
Yet even shorthanded, the Flyers know they can't afford to change the way they play.
"I think it's going to be a rough series," Giroux said. "It won't be easy. They want to win as bad as us. We're a young team with a lot of energy and we've got to make sure we go out there and make sure we outwork the Penguins. It's going to be a tough one."
One in which the Flyers will need to rely heavily on Bryzgalov to win. The 31-year-old netminder played some of the finest hockey of his career in March, posting three straight shutouts at one point.
The eccentric, contemplative Bryzgalov, who became a breakout star while being featured in HBO's "24/7" series leading up to Philadelphia's Winter Classic matchup with the New York Rangers, is hardly intimidated by the Penguins.
"You know, I'm not afraid of anything," Bryzgalov said. "I'm afraid of bears—bears in the forest."
Consol Energy Center should be bear-free on Wednesday. It won't be pressure-free, however, and Bryzgalov hasn't exactly sparkled in the post-season recently. He hasn't been on a team that won a playoff series since playing for Anaheim and was miserable last spring as the Phoenix Coyotes were swept in the first round by Detroit.
Laviolette insists his goaltender is in a better place now, even on a team filled with playoff newcomers.
There are no such issues with the Penguins, where the core has been intact for several years. Yet the dynasty that looked almost inevitable after the club made the Cup finals in 2008 then won it the next year has not materialized.
It's been three long years since Crosby hoisted sport's most venerable trophy over his head in triumph. The road back begins in earnest Wednesday.
"We should be confident and knowing what our game looks like," Crosby said. "I think the rewarding part is going out there and working hard and trying to earn it."