Last week, the Pittsburgh Penguins faced off against the Philadelphia Flyers in one of six in-state games featuring these two teams this season. As usual when it comes to these two teams, it was a high-scoring affair, seeing the Flyers triumph 6-5. Although the rivalry as it is currently known has only been important on a national stage for the past couple of years, these teams have obviously never had a great love for one another. During the broadcast, however, the announcers said multiple times that they thought this was the best rivalry in the league right now, and indeed it was billed as such by NBC Sports Network in the lead-up to the game. But could the best rivalry in hockey exist between two American teams? Can a good rivalry exist even when one team is significantly better than the other? Are they even each other’s biggest rivals?
None of these are easy questions to answer. I suppose it is necessary to start small: Are these two teams definitely each other’s biggest rivals? Until 2010, it would be hard to argue that was the case. For starters, they both play in what could be considered the best division in the NHL, meaning that the Rangers, Devils, Flyers, and Pens could all at any given time be considered each other’s main rivals, and indeed, historically it was actually the Rangers and Flyers that featured the most important rivalry in division. Additionally, since the 2004-05 lockout ended, and Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin quickly ascended to the top of the sport, the league pushed hard to market the Penguins (Crosby) and Washington Capitals (Ovechkin) as the biggest rivalry in the game, since showing off its two biggest stars and playing them off as rivals did a lot to re-attract the casual hockey fan after the debacle that was losing an entire season. However, with the inexplicable and rapid decline of Ovechkin the past two seasons, combined with the ascension of star Claude Giroux and the Flyers, it is safe to say that these two have become each other’s most hated rivals.
Now, can a rivalry exist even if one team is better than the other (as is the case this year, where the Pens are in 2nd in the conference and the Flyers in 9th, out of the playoff picture)? It certainly can, at least for a season or two, and particularly if the history is there. While having both teams on equal footing provides for more intrigue, division games like these normally find a way to remain close and are laden with tension and upsets. Not only that, but these teams are both stocked with talent; unfortunately for the Flyers, the injury bug has bitten them hard so far this season, which is a large reason that they have struggled. Anyone who watches these two teams face off will certainly not come away with the impression that either team is outclassed.
Finally, is a rivalry between two American teams truly the best the league has to offer? What about the in-province rivals Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames, or the Original Six rivals Montreal Canadians and Toronto Maple Leafs? It is hard to say. As popular as hockey is in both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, in which the Flyers and Pens rank higher than most of the other teams in both cities, it is hard to understand the intensity with which Canadians treat their hockey. Additionally, the Original Six tag is a big deal, since those teams have 40-50 more years of history than any other teams (the first incarnation of the League as we know it began in 1926-27; first round expansion did not occur until the 1967 season), which has allowed the hatred to become rooted even deeper in the fans of Original Six teams. With all of that said, however, the Pens-Flyers rivalry gives any of the traditional ones a run for their money, and offers enough exciting action that any sports fan, even the most casual of sports fans, can look forward to watching when these teams do battle.