By Michael Farber, SI.com
PHILADELPHIA -- If revenge is a dish best served cold, then Vengeance Now -- the Philadelphia Flyers playoff slogan -- apparently works best with a cheese steak and a soft pretzel washed down with a super-sized cup of vitriol. The Flyers certainly took their sweet time about the whole vengeance thing, dropping the first three games of the Eastern Conference final, it, but in one fast and furious period against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 4 Thursday, they kept a grip on the series and showed some of the trademark moxie that has marked the four decades of the organization.
The Stanley Cup playoffs always exact a toll.
Who knew that after the first three games of this seemingly lopsided series, that would be the toll on the Pennsylvania Turnpike for Game 5 on Sunday?
Philadelphia barely hung on to win this intra-state war, 4-2, with an empty-netter, because of a remarkable first period in which it scored three goals, as many as it had managed in the past eight periods of a series. The Flyers also took a healthy 17 shots, only one fewer than they had in a middling effort in Game 3. While we are tidying up statistics from that spirited period, it must be noted there were also two full-throated "Crosby sucks" chants in the Wachovia Center, which was filled by 19,972 orange-clad loonies juiced on a hockey tradition like no other and a pre-game rendition of God Bless America sung jointly by the estimable Lauren Hart (live) and Kate Smith (no longer among us, but present through the magic of videotape).
The fans, who have had an, uh, issue with Sidney Crosby since November 2005 when the rookie had the temerity to object after being on the receiving end of an impromptu Sher-Wood root canal by Flyers defenseman Derian Hatcher, needed some help in dealing with the Stanley Cup poster boy. On a fine spring night in which hockey could have been put to bed in Philadelphia, the aid was provided by an odd couple of defensemen, Jason Smith and Ryan Parent, who were unfairly burdened with responsibility because of injuries to the top two Flyers defensemen, Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn.
The 34-year-old Smith is the Flyers captain, a heart-and-soul blueliner but hardly a game changer, while Parent is a rookie who played the last quarter of the season with the Flyers but spent most of the year across the parking lot playing for the AHL Phantoms. Parent has first-pair potential -- indeed Pittsburgh general manager Ray Shero helped draft Parent in the first round in 2005 when he was an assistant with Nashville -- but the left-handed shot figures never be much of a point producer in the NHL. Eventually, however, he should be a premier shutdown specialist, a role in which he earned his bones in 2006 world junior championship in Vancouver by pairing with Marc Staal to suffocate dynamic American forward Phil Kessel and Russian (and now Penguins) star Evgeni Malkin, whom Parent and his partner also had to foil on the odd shift Thursday. He and Smith combined to keep Crosby, Marian Hossa and Pascal Dupuis away from the scoresheet even though the Penguins linemates registered 14 shots.
Parent also picked up his first NHL point in the match, the second assist on Joffrey Lupul's opening goal after the defenseman rimmed the puck into the zone -- the kind of simple play that he made with a newfound confidence throughout his nearly 16 minutes of ice time.
"He played really well," goalie Martin Biron said. "The nerves he had earlier" -- Parent played Game 1 of the opening round against Washington and Game 3 of the Pittsburgh series after Coburn suffered his eye injury in the previous match -- "were out. He just played a simple game."
"He showed a lot of patience back there," said center Mike Richards, who conceded he was tired of listening to the "Pittsburgh this and Pittsburgh that" chatter that had dominated the talk in anticipation of an early start to a Penguins-Detroit Red Wings final. "He played like a veteran."
There isn't much difference in putting a horse collar on Malkin in the world juniors and Crosby on the NHL playoff stage, Parent said, but there is a difference in the talent level surrounding them. "Everybody's older, of course, but also the other guys are also good," said Parent, who, like Crosby, was born in 1987, but never had crossed paths with the Pittsburgh captain on Team Canada. "There you have to shut down one guy. Now, you worry about a lot more."
Parent made sure he introduced himself to Crosby with about 13 minutes left when the two did some minor jousting after Crosby buried a puck in Biron's logo, exchanging insults all the while. This was part of the tenor of the third period when the Flyers hung on and the Penguins pressed, at least until Lupul's empty-net goal with 33 seconds left altered the equation. In the final 23 seconds, the Flyers and Penguins accounted for 34 minutes of penalties -- including a slashing/roughing double minor on Crosby and a decent fight between Hatcher and Ryan Malone. This being Philadelphia, you couldn't expect less.
There remains a disparity in wins, skill and health that does not bode well for the Flyers in Game 5. If Pittsburgh goalie Marc-André Fleury cleans up some shoddy work on rebounds and the Penguins match the Flyers' early intensity, the series should screech to a halt on Sunday -- unless Crosby and friends again fall into the Parent trap.