Sunday's Flyers-Penguins clash was awesome in every sense of the word. And the best part is that the two teams will likely be hooking up again in the first round of the playoffs.
The Flyers climbed out of an early two-goal deficit on Sunday, and eventually threw a stranglehold on a game that evoked memories of earlier in the season, when Philadelphia had a legitimate case to be considered the NHL's best team. But that was the only thing that was a reflection of earlier in the season, as it was a playoff atmosphere at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh.
But it wasn't the action between the whistles that served as the biggest takeaway. Instead, it was the extracurriculars that took place. Heated, strange, but much-expected extracurriculars.
Penguins forward Joe Vitale leveled Daniel Briere with a clean, open-ice hit during the third period, sparking mass chaos in the form of pushing, shoving, arguing and fighting. The madness came to a head when Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette and Penguins assistant coach Tony Granato stood on the boards and engaged in a shouting match that also included Pittsburgh head coach Dan Bylsma.
Clearly, a Plexiglass partition was hardly enough to keep the two sides apart. And clearly, the incident was made exponentially better by the fact that a Hulk Hogan look-alike was emphatically soaking up the action behind the bench, even getting into it with Flyers forward Scott Hartnell.
You can't make this stuff up.
But aside from the pure novelty of it all, the third-period fireworks were inevitable, and Laviolette's postgame frustration, during which he used the term "gutless," wasn't exactly warranted.
Brayden Schenn dropped Sidney Crosby with a dirty cross-check after the whistle earlier in the final frame after Steve Sullivan's goal pulled the Penguins closer. From that point on, for each team, it was just as much about sending a message to a potential first-round foe as it was about coming away with the win.
Sure, the victory was an important one for Philly, as the No. 4 seed will have the pleasure of home-ice advantage in the teams' potential 4-5 first-round matchup. But just as important was each team showing that they're not going to be pushed around — by each other or by the Rangers and Bruins, who've locked up the No. 1 and 2 seeds, respectively, in the Eastern Conference.
That desire to send a message would explain why Bylsma rolled out his fourth line shortly after Jakub Voracek's empty-net goal extended the Flyers' lead to 6-3.
"Those guys hadn't been out there in 12 minutes," Laviolette said of Bylsma's decision. "It's a gutless move by their coach. It's gutless."
In reality, though, it wasn't gutless as much as it was necessary. At that point, the game was well in hand, and the change in philosophy was apparent. Bylsma had seen his injury-plagued superstar get bullied and his team get blown out in the third period of what was a big game with playoff implications — all on their home ice. Letting the Flyers exit quietly wasn't an option, although Laviolette apparently feels it should've been.
Not every game is going to end with a line brawl and additional craziness that results in two coaches getting tossed and 52 penalty minutes getting doled out in the closing minutes. But for this game, with these two teams, after what had transpired already throughout the course of the contest, it was really the only appropriate ending.
So Laviolette can bicker all he wants about Bylsma electing to go with his checking line despite the Flyers coasting to a victory, but it was Bylsma's responsibility to ensure the road to the win was at least a little bit rocky. The game would have been even more of a disaster for the Penguins had it not ended the way it did. Getting tuned up on your home ice is one thing, but allowing it to happen while you take a brunt of the hits would've been unacceptable.
Fortunately for Pittsburgh fans, the Penguins elected to send a message. And for the casual hockey fan, a bigger message was delivered by Sunday's heated contest: The playoffs are right around the corner.
But first, the two teams will go toe to toe in the season finale on Saturday. Hopefully, a couple of Hogan look-alikes will show up for that one as well, as things apparently pop off when Hulkamania is in the building.