BOSTON – For the Bruins, physically punishing games against teams from Pennsylvania aren’t limited to match-ups with Philadelphia anymore.
The Pittsburgh Penguins, who visit TD Garden today for a 1 p.m. puck-drop against Boston, have emerged as a team that can throw around bodies and throw down the gloves as much as their in-state rivals.
While Bruins-Flyers is a heated rivalry dating back to the ‘70s, Bruins-Penguins is a more-recent revelation. Matt Cooke’s concussion-causing hit on Marc Savard last spring obviously upped the physicality meter, but there might be even more to it.
“I guess we’re both kind of built the same way,” Bruins tough guy Shawn Thornton said of the two teams. “For the most part, we kind of roll four lines. There’s tough guys on both sides. They play hard. That’s probably the biggest reasons – it’s the same type of personnel.”
Boston’s first post-Cooke-incident game with Pittsburgh last March turned out to be a physical dud after Thornton pummeled Cooke in an early-game scrap. However, this year’s two match-ups have established Bruins-Penguins as a black-and-blue sort of game.
In Boston’s 7-4 win in November, there were three fights. And then last Monday there were two roughing penalties whistled and enough post-whistles scrums to be confused with a playoff game. None other than Savard was in the thick of a few of those scrums and he earned a roughing major after he retaliated against Brooks Orpik for a late hit.
“It’s part of the game. It might’ve been a little bit late. But that comes with the territory. You’re trying to get a goal and he hit me and I had a little reaction. But it’s part of hockey,” said Savard.
The playmaking center, who’s still working his way back into form after Cooke’s hit, said he enjoyed watching replays of Mark Recchi’s winning goal in the days after Monday’s victory because just before the score, Savard made a pass and withstood a crushing check from Cooke.
Boston shouldn’t take the Pens’ hard-edged approach as a personal affront. It seems that over the last few years, Pittsburgh has transformed itself into a more rugged, punishing team. The Penguins rank third in major penalties (the Bruins are fourth). Deryk Engelland and Mike Rupp are both in the top 10 in fighting majors (as is Thornton), and Cooke and Orpik rank in the top 25 in the league in hits.
Seth Rorabaugh of the Empty Netters blog analyzed this phenomenon this week. He attributed much of the transformation from mostly a finesse squad to one with hearty edge to the change in coach from Michel Therrien to Dan Bylsma.
With perhaps a slight hiccup during the change from Therrien to Bylsma, it’s been a pretty direct change from a team primarily identified with finesse to one also associated with fighting. And as we saw during “24/7,” the Penguins don’t hide from that fact. Bylsma and company pride themselves in physical play.
The Bruins are well aware that the Pens can come at them with skill, size and fists-a-flying if necessary.
“They’re a good-sized team. There’s a lot of character players on that team as well,” Bruins head coach Claude Julien said. “They’ve got a good mix of skill, grit and character. Again, to me, they’re one of the elite teams in the league.”
Rorabaugh kiddingly coined this Pittsburgh team as “Deryk Engelland’s Punching Penguins.” Whatever you call them, the Bruins know they’ll need extra ice packs by the time evening rolls around.