Bullies Back on Broad Street

Left wing Scott Hartnell, left, is one of the big hitters acquired by Flyers GM Paul Holmgren since February 2007.
Left wing Scott Hartnell, left, is one of the big hitters acquired by Flyers GM Paul Holmgren since February 2007. (By Tom Mihalek -- Associated Press)
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By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 10, 2008

VOORHEES, N.J., April 9 -- The Philadelphia Flyers hit hard and often. They crash the crease. And if you're an opposing player skating with your head down, watch out.

Five Flyers, in fact, were suspended for various infractions this season, everything from headhunting to cross-checking. It became such a concern that Colin Campbell, the NHL's dean of discipline, cautioned Philadelphia General Manager Paul Holmgren about his players' bad behavior.

Although no Philadelphia players have been suspended since Campbell's warning in December, the Flyers' reputation for doling out punishing hits had been established.

"We're a team that has to play physical to be effective, much like the Caps," said Holmgren, whose roster overhaul put the Flyers back in the playoffs and brought some bullies back to Broad Street. "So I don't mind it when people say that."

Philadelphia's penchant for physical play will be among the subplots when the Flyers open the Eastern Conference playoffs Friday night at Verizon Center against the Washington Capitals, a feisty team in its own right.

"We obviously have to be aware and play heads-up on the ice," Capitals checking-line center Boyd Gordon said. "We know they're tough and physical."

On Nov. 23 in Philadelphia, Gordon was caught with his head down, skating along the boards when Scott Hartnell laid him out with a hard -- but clean -- shoulder check to the head. Capitals captain Chris Clark saw Hartnell's hit as a cheap shot and picked a fight, putting the Flyers on the power play and stoking the Wachovia Center crowd. The Flyers scored twice over the next 2 minutes 4 seconds, though the Capitals eventually won in overtime on Nicklas Backstrom's goal.

"The prototypical Philadelphia team is an aggressive, in-your-face kind of team," Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "That's how they've been since 1972. They've been like that this year and they've been successful at it. I don't think they are going to turn into a bunch of guys who are going to win" the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy, the NHL's sportsmanship award.

Which is just how Holmgren wanted it. As the Flyers crashed to the bottom of the NHL last season en route to a franchise-worst 56 points, the rookie GM came under pressure to retool his aging and dysfunctional roster -- and fast.

The transformation began in February 2007, when he dealt injury-plagued center Peter Forsberg to the Nashville Predators for left wing Scottie Upshall, young defenseman Ryan Parent and two draft picks. At the trade deadline a couple of weeks later, he sent veteran Alexei Zhitnik to the Atlanta Thrashers for touted young defenseman Braydon Coburn, then a second-round pick to the Buffalo Sabres for goalie Martin Biron.

In the offseason, Holmgren traded the first-round selection he received in the Forsberg deal back to the Predators for the negotiating rights to defenseman Kimmo Timonen and Hartnell. He also acquired right wing Joffrey Lupul and defenseman Jason Smith from the Edmonton Oilers and signed prize free agent center Daniel Brière in the opening hours of free agency, completing a roster remake that contrasts with the Capitals' patient approach of building through the draft.

Three of Holmgren's acquisitions -- Upshall, Hartnell and Smith -- are among the Flyers' biggest hitters. One of their primary targets figures to be Alex Ovechkin, the NHL's scoring champion this season with 65 goals and 112 points and the Capitals' most physical player.

"The big knock on Peter Forsberg was that you could get him playing more of a physical game instead of trying to score," Flyers defenseman Derian Hatcher told reporters at Philadelphia's practice facility this week. "I can see Ovechkin going that way. He seems like he might have that in him, where he's more worried about hitting guys than he is scoring. . . . It's his first playoff series, right?"

Ovechkin's response?

"If they hit me, good for them," he said. "I will try to hit them back and score goals. In the playoffs, everybody can be physical. There can be some bad things like cheap shots, because it's playoffs. But if they take a penalty, it's good for" the Capitals.

"I don't care if somebody hit me," he added. "I like it."

The potential for mayhem is generating buzz.

"This series has a chance to have the most bloodshed of all the series, and the big reason why is because of the targeting that's going to go on," NBC color analyst Pierre McGuire said. "Whether you talk about going after Alex Ovechkin or even challenging a rookie like Nicklas Backstrom. . . . When you look at the Philadelphia Flyers under [Coach] John Stevens, he brought back a little bit about what made the Flyers good in the 1970s -- and that's intimidation."

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