By Tony Androckitis, TCG AHL Hockey Beat Writer
One night after the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins began their season series, their American Hockey League (AHL) affiliates in Glens Falls and Wilkes-Barre, respectively, took to the ice for their first matchup of the year. It didn’t take long for those in attendance at the Mohegan Sun Arena last weekend to see that this hockey rivalry stems past the hatred built up at the National Hockey League (NHL) level.
“You see the Flyers lose the other day and you want to go win for them,” Phantoms forward Zack Fitzgerald said. “When you have a rivalry like this it’s going to be physical. It’s good. That’s the way I like to play hockey. We just need to be a little more physical.”
Last Friday’s AHL game was certainly physical throughout the entire 60 minutes of play. In all, the referees whistled 26 infractions and dished out 80 penalty minutes to the Phantoms and Penguins, including a pair of fights and several post-whistle scrums. To no one’s surprise, Fitzgerald was the one with his gloves off late in the second period with Penguins forward Pierre-Luc Letourneau Leblond.
“It gets me excited,” Fitzgerald said of playing against a rival team like the Penguins. “It’s great. It keeps the fans excited and each player knows that it’s going to be a war.”
The AHL Penguins and Phantoms are only scheduled to play four times in the regular season this year, but when the Phantoms move back into Pennsylvania to play in the newly constructed PPL Center in Allentown for the 2014-15 season, these two teams could end up playing each other 8-12 times next season, much like how the Penguins play in-state rival Hershey 12 times this season.
“That just makes it a whole new game, when you start to play each other that much, there really starts to become a hatred on the ice,” Fitzgerald said. “That hypes it up, gets fans from the other side coming and all of a sudden it’s a full house. Hopefully I’ll be around and it’ll be exciting.”
Penguins team captain Tom Kostopoulos, a former teammate of Fitzgerald’s with the Carolina Hurricanes organization, played against the Phantoms twice last season but recalls playing against the Phantoms when they were intrastate rivals with the AHL Penguins in the early 2000’s.
“When they were in Philadelphia for awhile it was a huge battle because they were so close,” Kostopoulos said. “There was some scary games my first couple years, we had a really tough team and so did the Phantoms. You went into those games prepared because there was guys that could take you head off,” Kostopoulos said with a laugh.
“It’s always been a physical rivalry playing the Phantoms,” Kostopoulos added. “Both NHL teams like that style, like teams that play hard-nosed hockey so it translates into the minors. We have a bunch of players that play that way and so do they so it leads to good hockey.”
The Penguins skated away last Friday night with the 6-3 win and after two more wins last weekend, they head into this weekend’s games with Binghamton and Norfolk undefeated after six games. The Phantoms started the season with an overtime win over the Hershey Bears, but have since dropped five straight games, including two in shootouts, to fall to 1-3-0-2 through six games.
“They’re a gritty team,” Penguins forward Zach Sill said of the Phantoms. “They always come to play hard and it’s always a fun game to play against them, that’s for sure.”
The two teams don’t face-off again until November 27th in Glens Falls, New York, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be any carryover hostilities from last Friday’s game on Thanksgiving Eve in upstate New York.
“I’m sure it will,” Sill said, when asked about if the physical style and rivalry-mentality will continue next time the two teams meet. “It will be a little bit of a grudge match next time.”