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Chuck Gormley | NHL.com correspondent
Jan 15, 2007, 12:00 PM EST


When NBC executives looked at the NHL schedule and began pondering which would be the best game to kick off their 2007 hockey coverage, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers seemed like an attractive fit.

Sidney Crosby and Peter Forsberg had worked up a little disdain for each other last season, with Forsberg accusing the teen phenom of diving. Crosby and Flyers defenseman Derian Hatcher had a history, with Hatcher bloodying Crosby's lip with a pair of high sticks and Crosby getting stitched up in time to score an overtime game-winner.

But there had to a little trepidation at NBC headquarters when they looked at the previous five meetings between the Flyers and Pens. The Penguins had turned three of the team's five meetings this season into laughers, outscoring Philadelphia by a 28-11 margin in five-straight victories.

It was enough to make anyone wonder if the NHL's decision to place a heavier emphasis on division rivalries was a good one. But, as if on cue, the Flyers and Penguins put on a show any director would have loved. In a game crackling with intensity, Crosby was booed by every time he touched the puck. Forsberg rallied his team from a two-goal deficit with a goal and an assist.

Crosby took another high stick in the face from Hatcher and got into a face-rubbing tussle with defenseman Alexei Zhitnik behind the Flyers net. Forsberg dropped Maxime Talbot with a menacing shoulder. Colby Armstrong crushed Jeff Carter with an open-ice collision. Forsberg slammed Ryan Malone to the ice in a wall battle for the puck.

In the end, Penguins rookie Evgeni Malkin was the difference, setting up Jordan Staal's game-winner then sealing the victory with an empty-netter in a game that left 19,587 fans and millions of television viewers thirsting for more.

Which brings us to this argument: Should the NHL alter its rivalry-based schedule and reduce divisional games from its current eight games.

"I think you just gotta keep it the way it is," said Penguins senior advisor and resident old-schooler Ed Johnston. "The intensity was up there for both teams and that's what you want to see in our game.

"When they come into our building the fans are going to be jumping all over Hatcher. That's what you want, to build up something for the fans."

And it was clear by the reaction Crosby got from Philadelphia fans that he has replaced Matthew Barnaby and Darcy Tucker as Public Enemy No. 1 and 1A.

"I think the fans here might be the toughest for him," Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said with a smile. "Some other places are tough, but not as tough as here."

Crosby obviously loves the attention. Although he was held to just one assist Saturday, Crosby has feasted on the Flyers in his young career with 14 goals and 16 assists for 30 points in 14 career games against Philadelphia. Earlier this season he netted his first career hat trick against the Flyers and last month he enjoyed a career-high six-point night.

Crosby has said his fire to play against the Flyers is fueled by some of the heat he took from them - on and off the ice - as a rookie last season.

"The emotions are high, but that's hockey sometimes," he said. "It's a heated affair every time we play them and it hasn't changed. Any guy who plays hockey looks forward to those challenges. The fans (in Philadelphia) are pretty tough. I try to block out fans anywhere I play, but it seems like there's always a little more in the air here. They're passionate fans, they're behind their team and that's to be expected."

"That tells you the kind of kid he is," Johnston said. "He gets a high stick in the mouth, he gets up and he gets the winning goal (last season). That juices him up the next time he comes back in the building. I'd hate to see the league take that out. I think it's great."

Flyers coach John Stevens agrees.

"I'm not sure what the poll would be, but my experience is that games with your divisional opponents carry a lot of emotion and serve as a reference point in the playoffs," he said.

There are those, of course, who disagree. Fans in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia won't see Joe Sakic and the Colorado Avalanche this season. They won't see Teemu Selanne and the Anaheim Ducks, either.

"The rivalries are great, but at the same time, I think it would be nice to play at least everybody once," Fleury said. "Fans can see every player and every team. There are so many good players around the league. In Pittsburgh we won't see Joe Sakic."

Mike Knuble agreed, but the prospect of losing eight-straight games to Crosby and Co. might be an underlying reason.

"I'm not a big fan of playing eight times," Knuble said. "They beat us six-straight times now."

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