PHILADELPHIA -- Hockey came home Saturday afternoon.
It came home to the familiar chants of "Crosby sucks!" from the largest crowd -- 19,994 -- to ever attend a Philadelphia Flyers regular-season game.
It came home to heartfelt thank-yous from the Flyers’ players to fans on the scoreboard at the Wells Fargo Center.
And it came home with a small measure of redemption for the visiting Pittsburgh Penguins, who played their last game of the playoffs in this building and must have been reminded of their six-game series loss to the Flyers at every turn leading up to Saturday’s 3-1 victory, which opened the 48-game sprint to the playoffs.
But make no mistake, while the game returned -- and with it, no small measure of excitement on the part of the fans and relief on the part of virtually everyone connected to the game -- what returned Saturday was a shadow of what it can and should be.
The ragged, sloppy display put on by both teams was a constant reminder that there remains a price to be paid for the lockout that lasted 113 days before a deal was struck earlier this month.
How long that price will be paid is anyone’s guess, but for all the apologies and emotion that greeted this game and the 12 others that kicked off the truncated 2013 season, this wasn’t anything close to a work of art.
“To be honest, I wasn’t too sure what to expect. I’ve been playing a long time, and I’m not going to lie, the first period was kind of ugly,” Giroux said.
“Guys were just trying to put their legs back in the game, and the system was a little sloppy, but I think [the] second and third [period] were played better,” he said.
While Sidney Crosby led all Pittsburgh forwards with 19 minutes in ice time, he was held off the score sheet.
Defending scoring champ Evgeni Malkin did a nice job to win a draw back to James Neal for what would stand up as the winner before the first period was half over, but he missed one glorious chance with a shot about 10 feet high and wide; even though he was tearing up the Kontinental Hockey League when the lockout ended, he looked a little out of sorts.
“There was a lot of instances out there for a lot of people where the game was going a little bit faster than their brains were, and sometimes they got surprised by the speed,” said Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma. “I don’t think the play was as pretty and the power plays were as crisp as you might see them."
Before the game, Bylsma admitted he had no real clue what to expect in terms of the execution.
You knew any Flyers-Penguins game, let alone one that marks the end of an ugly labor dispute, was going to be filled with hard skating and hard hitting. And this one was. But these two teams combined for 56 goals in a six-game playoff series last spring -- not that you’d have known it from Saturday’s contest.
Maybe because it has been such a long wait and the anticipation has grown exponentially seemingly each day since a new deal was ratified, that there’s a disconnect between expectation and reality.
“I think you have to understand that it’s not going to be how your brain might think it’s going to be, and you’ve got to manage the game and manage the puck that way,” Bylsma said.
Pascal Dupuis joked how every pass was right on the tape or in the sweet spot, rolling his eyes.
“Felt tight. The puck was bouncing a little bit, the passes were a little bit of in the skates stuff but it was good to get it out of the way. It felt good,” Dupuis told ESPN.com.
“As the game went on, you kind of remembered that intensity, 'All right, all right,' your brain’s got to get back into a fast-reaction programming kind of thing,” he said.
When will the game look as good as it should?
Both teams were hurrying to pack and move on after Saturday’s mid-afternoon tilt, the Penguins got off to New York to play the defending Atlantic Division-champion Rangers, while the Flyers were off to face Buffalo Sunday evening.
Giroux glanced over at a clock in the Flyers’ dressing room when he was asked about the quick turnaround -- something that will be a way of life for all 30 teams with this schedule.
“Yeah, I mean, we’re playing in I don’t know how many hours. We’ve got to make sure we jump on the plane, get some good food in us and go to bed, because 9:30’s going to come pretty quick tomorrow morning,” the Flyers captain said.
Hockey players must normally develop short memories, so it will be even more vital this season because even as each game’s importance looms larger, the tightness of the games will not allow for much introspection or self-recrimination.
“You never want to sit on a loss too long, so we made sure of that with the 12:30 p.m. start [in Buffalo]. So, we’ll be back out, ready to play. We rolled lines pretty good tonight. Nobody really got taxed,” Philadelphia coach Peter Laviolette said.
While the Flyers were disappointed in their start -- they were outshot 11-6 and were down 2-0 at the end of the first period -- they bounced back to hold a slight edge in scoring chances over the final two periods.
Still, it’s all about accelerating a process of team-building and getting timing down that normally extends several weeks through training camp and a slate of preseason games.
“I think the team that kind of adjusts to it the fastest is going to see a lot of benefit, but there’s no doubt every guy’s going to take a few games to feel good, and the guys that have already played -- I’m sure they’re probably better off. But the team that can come together the quickest is going to see the best results,” Crosby said.
Given the bitter memories of last spring’s playoff loss in this building, the Penguins won’t spend much time fretting about the artistic merits of this one.
Netminder Marc-Andre Fleury, who endured a nightmare series against the Flyers allowing 26 goals in six games, was very sharp, turning aside 26 of 27 Flyer shots, 21 of which came in the last two periods.
“He was really good. It was a tough series for everybody last year. I know he wasn’t at his best, but I think people were a little too hard on him,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said.
“We were terrible in front of him, too, so I think coming into this game it was going to be interesting to see how he bounced back, and he obviously bounced back in a tremendous way for us.”