Flyers-Penguins: Rivalry intensifying

     PITTSBURGH _ Sunday afternoon, at the Igloo in Pittsburgh, the Flyers and Penguins will meet in a nationally televised showdown for fourth place in the Eastern Conference.
     It’s good to see a percolating Philadelphia-Pittsburgh rivalry. It reminds me of when the Phillies’ biggest rival was the Pittsburgh Pirates.
     That, of course, was before Major League Baseball somehow put the Pirates into the NL Central.
     But I digress….
     In the NHL, the Flyers have nearby rivals New Jersey, Washington and the New York Rangers, but the rivalry with the Penguins is going to intensify in upcoming weeks.
     Who knows? Maybe it’ll get to the point of the Phillies-Pirates back in the days when Willie Stargell was saying, “Hitting Steve Carlton is like drinking coffee with a fork.”
     The Flyers don’t like the Penguins. And vice versa.
     And Flyers fans love to try to distract Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby with chants, boos and signs. (It hasn’t worked. Crosby has a mind-boggling 45 points in 25 career games against the Flyers.)
     Last year, the Penguins cruised past the Flyers in the Eastern Conference finals, winning in five games.
     There were extenuating circumstances, however. Most importantly, the Flyers played most of that series without their top two defensemen, Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn, each of whom were injured.
    They’re healthy now _ and the Flyers, with a year of experience and the blossoming of young stars like Jeff Carter, are a stronger team than last season.
    The Penguins, meanwhile, have taken a step backward this season. They have lost several key players from last year, most notably Marian Hossa.
   That said, the Penguins are the NHL’s hottest team, having gone 12-1-3 in their last 16 games.

   The Flyers have been so-so in the season’s second half. They need to string together some wins and take some momentum into the playoffs _ like they did last year.
   The Flyers and Penguins are tied for the No. 4 seed in the East, but Philadelphia has three games in hand. The fourth seed gets home-ice advantage in the opening round.
    After Sunday’s showdown, the Flyers will play host to Eastern Conference power New Jersey on Monday at the Wachovia Center.
   “We’re in control of our own destiny,” said Danny Briere, who looked back in form with a two-goal performance Friday against Buffalo.
    The Flyers have won just one of five games (1-2-2) against the Pens this season. Since the teams are likely to meet in the first round of the playoffs, the Flyers need a victory Sunday to send a message….and gain some confidence.
   The last time the teams met, disaster struck the Flyers. In the closing minutes, goalie Marty Biron charged about 30 feet out of his net and tried to clear the puck.
    Bad move. Flyer-killer Crosby ended up scoring into a goalie-less net with 2:45 to go, giving Pittsburgh a 5-4 victory.
   On Sunday at 12:30 p.m., Biron will get a chance to make amends.

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    Defenseman Randy Jones, sidelined by a hip injury the last two games, said he was almost 100 percent healthy after a productive practice here Saturday. It will be a game-time decision as to wheher he plays Sunday.