Never mind the hate, Pens say

PITTSBURGH -- So, is there anyone out there who doesn't hate Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins?

Coaches, assistant coaches, failed GMs, ancient Canadian broadcast icons and random tweeters have been lining up in recent days to get their kicks in at Crosby and the Penguins.

Sitting in a suite above the ice at Consol Energy Center, the "Stanley Cup Playoffs" logos freshly painted, his team working out in advance of Wednesday's opening game against the Philadelphia Flyers, Penguins GM Ray Shero admits to being puzzled at what has taken place the past couple of weeks.

For a year and a half, Shero was dogged by questions from around the hockey world about his captain.

The hockey world waited with bated breath for his answers, for news on Crosby, the face of not just the franchise but the game. When was Crosby coming back? Would he come back at all?

And now that he's tearing it up with 25 points in 14 games -- and 12 in his past five -- since coming back March 15, many can't wait to tear Crosby and his teammates down.

"It [ticks] me off," Shero admitted.

Philadelphia Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette melted down after a recent game between the two teams after Joe Vitale pasted Daniel Briere with a clean open-ice, and it cost Laviolette $10,000 (and Pens assistant head coach Tony Granato $2,500). Assistant coach Craig Berube called Malkin and Crosby the dirtiest players on the team. (Really? Craig Berube?) Failed GM Mike Milbury, now a widely seen broadcast analyst, unloaded on the Pens, head coach Dan Bylsma and specifically on Crosby, during a radio show and was forced to apologize for his vitriol.
New York Rangers head coach John Tortorella was then fined $20,000 for a postgame tirade against the Penguins last week in which he called the team arrogant and singled out Malkin and Crosby as being whiners.
Even Canadian broadcaster Don Cherry, on his popular "Coaches Corner" segment on "Hockey Night in Canada," grumbled about Crosby retaliating against opposing players.

Twitter, always a haven for haters and the mean-spirited, has been alive with even more venom when it comes to Crosby and the Penguins.

It reminds us of a conversation we had after the lockout with a top coach who wondered aloud about the National Hockey League and its propensity for tearing at its own fabric.

"No one eats their own like we do," the coach said.

This is not a new dynamic.

Fans always love to hate opposing stars and the teams for which they toil. It's a natural human emotion born mostly out of envy and frustration.

But the Penguins occupy a most unique place in the pantheon of playoff teams this spring. They are the fair-haired sons returned to prominence.

During the Pens' run to the Stanley Cup final in 2008 and then during their dramatic journey to the team's first Stanley Cup since 1992 the next season, there was something inspiring about them. They were the young team dragging itself from the ashes of disappointment. They had been last in the conference and 29th in the league in 2005-06 and then, almost miraculously, they were champions. And even if you weren't a fan, even if you were part of that growing "I hate Sidney Crosby and the Pens" faction, there was still grudging admiration for what they did, and the implication that if it could happen to the lowly Pens, it could happen elsewhere.

And it did.

Long-suffering Chicago Blackhawks fans saw the team follow a similar arc to the 2010 Stanley Cup. As did long-suffering Boston Bruins fans last spring, even though the manner in which their team was built was slightly different.

A year ago, with Crosby and Malkin out with injury, no one really expected the Penguins to win. When they lost in seven games in the first round against Tampa, there was either indifference or a shrugging of the shoulders.

Now the Penguins are back and whole again, complete.

Crosby has returned, almost magically, after suiting up for just 63 games the past two seasons, resuming his place as one of the game's best players, if not holding that distinction alone. Malkin returned from knee surgery to win his second scoring title and will almost certainly win his first Hart Trophy. With Jordan Staal healthy as well, the Penguins will ice the deepest collection of centers in the NHL.

"Our franchise was basically on hold for a year," Shero told ESPN.com.

And so this spring the expectations are as high as they get. And with the kind of backlash we've seen in recent days, it has served to provide an edgier backdrop than even the normal prospect of a Philadelphia-Pittsburgh playoff series (they met in 2008 and 2009) might produce.

"I don't give a [hoot] what people say and the team doesn't give a [hoot]. The players don't give a [hoot]. This is inconsequential to the team," Shero said.
"We know what this organization's about. We know what we do in this community."

Some players, even some teams, thrive on that kind of rancor. It adds spice to an already piquant brew of emotion at this time of the season.

Think of Chris Pronger reveling in the animosity shown him in virtually every NHL rink, happily making the Chicago Blackhawks crazy by taking the pucks after games in the 2010 finals. Crosby, for his part, has referred some of what has been said about him is "garbage" and sloughed off the rest.

As a result, Shero expects a frenetic first 10 minutes to the series.

"Then all of that will kind of go away and become a series no different than the other ones being played out," he predicted.

But whether what has been said is anything more than white noise remains to be seen.

"Yeah, as much as you try to ignore it everyone's aware of it, everyone hears it, you come and there's TVs on everywhere. It's hard to escape it," defenseman Brooks Orpik said Tuesday.
"It's out of your control, but at the same time everybody's a human being here. You don't like bad things said about you, you always want people to say good things about you.

"I think it's the same in any sport. You look at the Red Sox and the Yankees, and they always have success and there's people that hate them just because they have success," Orpik added. "I think any time you have success there's going to be people jealous of that."

Bylsma has never been suspended or fined at any level since becoming a coach. He and the Penguins did not complain publicly when New York Ranger (and former Penguin) Mike Rupp was involved in a knee-on-knee hit that left Jordan Staal out of action for more than a month.

"That's not how I coach," Bylsma told ESPN.com.

As for the groundswell of negative commentary, Bylsma doesn't feel it's an issue that has any bearing on the hockey to be played.

"Those things, they're not real," he said.

Former NHLer and broadcast analyst Ray Ferraro admitted he is a bit surprised at the vitriol, especially when some have brought up the old chestnut about Crosby and diving.

"They're about two years too late. That's an old story and he doesn't do it anymore," Ferraro told ESPN.com.

Still, Ferraro figures this is exactly the kind of discussion the Flyers want to be going on around this series.

The Flyers, while highly skilled, are an extremely young team that will rely heavily on five or six rookies throughout the playoffs. The Penguins, meanwhile, are battle-tested with a large core of players that won the Cup in '09.

If the Flyers can get the Penguins worried about all of this reputation stuff, retaliating, taking penalties, they have a much better shot at winning.

"This is where they want the series to go," Ferraro said.
"There's so much venom in the series, but this is also a series between two highly, highly skilled teams."

The Penguins' main challenge, Ferraro said, "will be keeping the series out of the mud."

Keith Jones, a former Flyer now a national analyst, said if there is a ripple effect from the pregame rhetoric, it will be with players and their emotions.

"A lot of times when a series is built up likes this one is, players can get caught up in that and end up being too revved up," Jones said.

Either way, all this hate could add up to a series that fans will love.