Flyers-Penguins rivalry could be at risk in realignment

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The Flyers and Penguins could be split into separate divisions under a new realignment proposal. (Keith Srakocic/AP file photo)

In 1994, one of Major League Baseball's best rivalries had its guts ripped out when the Pirates and Phillies - who accounted for 15 of the NL East's 25 division titles between 1969 and 1993 - were placed in different divisions.

Is another heated, Philadelphia-Pittsburgh rivalry about to bite the dust?

That's what could be in the works as CBC's Elliotte Friedman, one of the most respected hockey insiders in the game, reported that the Flyers and Penguins would be split up into separate divisions under a new realignment proposal that is gaining traction among the league's board of governors.

According to Friedman, this current proposal - one of about four possibilities in the works - is believed to be nearly "50/50" toward its approval, making it the favorite at the moment.

The NHL is expected to vote on realignment at its annual board of governors meeting in December, where any scenario would require a two-thirds (20 votes) majority to be put into place for next season.

Realignment is necessary, of course, with the reincarnated Winnipeg Jets temporarily skating in the East's Southeast Division after their abrupt move from Atlanta last summer.

Under this proposed plan, the NHL would move to four, unbalanced divisions - including seven- and eight-team divisions in each conference. It was commissioner Gary Bettman who first endorsed the idea of four divisions instead of the current six setup.

In the regular season, that would break down to a home-and-home series with every opponent outside the division and either 36 or 38 games within the division, depending on the team.

In the playoffs, this proposal has two rounds of intra-division matchups, followed by the division "winners" squaring off for the right to skate in the Stanley Cup finals.

To say that the realignment process - where seemingly every team roots for its own self-interests - will be a heated one is an understatement. It's nearly impossible to please everyone.

Until now, the biggest bone of contention has been with teams in the Western Conference - such as Detroit, Columbus and Dallas - that play the majority of their games outside their home time zone, making it difficult for fans to stay in touch with the team when they're on the road.

Dallas (Central time) plays in the Pacific Division with opponents Los Angeles, Anaheim, Phoenix and San Jose. The best moments of almost every road game come after 11:30 p.m. in Texas. Much the same goes for Detroit and Columbus in the Central Division.

Under this proposal, Dallas would move and play teams like St. Louis, Nashville, Chicago and Minnesota more often. Detroit, it appears, would be satisfied after a reported "concession" was made last week - that the Red Wings will agree to remain in the West if they only make one extended trip to Western Canada and one to California per season. With the home-and-home arrangement, that can be accomplished.

So, who is the disgruntled team now? The Penguins. They lose out on rivalries against Washington and Philadelphia.

The Flyers wouldn't exactly be complaining. Selling tickets has never been a problem here. They would trade the Crosbys for the Ovechkins, maintain rivalries with the Devils and Rangers, and have to face the Penguins just twice a season instead of six times.

Plus, the two teams still would be able to meet in the playoffs. And the Flyers would visit Carolina, Tampa Bay and Florida more often, teams that have made the playoffs a combined 14 times in 51 tries since 1994.

Other owners reportedly are upset about the fact that, with unbalanced divisions, one division in each conference will have just three teams that miss the playoffs instead of four. For our money, we'd move both Columbus and Detroit to the East - for a total of 16 teams - and leave the West with an unbalanced 14 teams, like it's done in baseball.

Is it fair then, that the West would have just six teams miss the playoffs instead of eight? When you consider that teams in the East will travel an average of 33,600 air miles this season instead of the 43,300 that teams in the West will fly, I'd say that's a fair trade.

Stay tuned. There is a lot of bartering to be done between now and December. And the Penguins might just have to bite the bullet.

STRANGE REUNION?

Philadelphia could be the site of a heck of a strange reunion on Saturday. The Columbus Dispatch is reporting that former coach Ken Hitchcock has been put on "high alert" after the suddenly expensive Blue Jackets started just 2-9-1 under Scott Arniel. Hitchcock, the only man to lead Columbus to the playoffs, was fired in 2010 but is still owed $1.3 million for this season.

If healthy, it would be Jeff Carter's first return to Philadelphia since his June trade. Carter hasn't played since Oct. 15, missing the last seven games with a fractured foot. He is listed as week-to-week.

Wouldn't it be stunning if Hitchcock, who was partially fired by the Flyers in October 2007 because of his hot-and-cold relationship with then-young stars Carter and Mike Richards, is bossing around Carter again with an iron fist?

SLAP SHOTS

Chris Pronger began "gingerly" exercising on Saturday for the first time since taking a stick to the eye last Monday night against Toronto. He still has blurriness in his vision and needs to be cleared by a doctor to resume skating . . . Danny Briere's undisclosed, upper-body injury - reportedly a rib issue - that kept him out of Saturday's game is not expected to be serious. Briere should be ready to play on Wednesday in Buffalo.

ON-ICE

AN APP FOR THAT

"It seems like I've found the way

very quick, huh? It was the iPhone compass."

- Flyers goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, after Saturday's 5-1 win, which came just 48 hours after he said he was "lost in the woods.''

STAT WATCH

2: Number of four-point games in Claude Giroux' career, as he matched a career high with one goal and three assists against Carolina on Saturday. His other four-point game was Jan. 23, 2011, at Chicago. Giroux' 15 points have him tied for second league-wide behind Toronto's Phil Kessel.

16-1-3: The Flyers' overall record against the Hurricanes since Dec. 19, 2006. The Flyers are 8-0-2 at home against Carolina in that time span.

115: Number of two-goal games in Jaromir Jagr's storied career. Jagr has 101 career points against the

Carolina/Hartford franchise, his second favorite opponent throughout the course of his career.

24.28: Hits per 60 minutes for forward Zac Rinaldo, who ranks second in the NHL in that category. Rinaldo had two hits in a career-high 8:21 of ice time on Saturday.

DID YOU NOTICE . . . ?

-- That Ilya Bryzgalov switched from white metal bars on the front of his goalie mask to black, perhaps to better see incoming pucks, before Saturday's game against Carolina.

-- That Max Talbot wore an "A" as

alternate captain on Saturday when Danny Briere missed the game with an undisclosed, upper-body injury.

PHANTOMS PHILE

The Phantoms (6-3-0-1) are just one point back of the Northeast Division lead in the AHL's Eastern Conference, mostly behind the solid play of Michael Leighton (2.38 goals against-average, .920 save percentage). Both Harry Zolnierczyk (nine points) and Virginia native Garrett Roe (eight) are among the top 10 in AHL rookie scoring. Sean Avery, in his first AHL game with the Connecticut Whale before being recalled by the Rangers yesterday, fought Marc-Andre Bourdon on Friday night. Then, without Erik Gustafsson and Zac Rinaldo, the Phantoms beat a very solid Hershey Bears team, 2-1, on Saturday.