PITTSBURGH - It actually all started with a gentleman's agreement.
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A minute and 15 seconds after Sidney Crosby gave Pittsburgh an early 1-0 lead on the opening shift of Saturday night's game, Wayne Simmonds asked Penguins hulking defenseman Jamie Oleksiak to engage in a fight knowing he was surrendering five inches in height and 60 to 70 pounds in weight.
If this was a WBO-sanctioned event, it would have been a welterweight stepping into the ring against a heavyweight. Still, Simmonds did what needed to be done at that stage of the game.
"I just went up and I asked him immediately and I was happy he said, ‘Yeah,'" Simmonds said. "I remember playing them in the playoffs last year and trying to get him to go and he wouldn't [fight me]. I know he's a big boy. I know he can handle himself well, so I think at that point in the game, not even two minutes into the game, if I'm gonna get one, I'm gonna get it then."
From that moment, the Flyers sent the message that Saturday night wasn't going to be a replay of the previous week, when they waved the white flag in a 6-0 loss to the Maple Leafs. This time, it was a 4-2 win over their rival (see observations).
Penguins coach Mike Sullivan didn't back down either when asked pointedly if that fight swung momentum in the Flyers' direction.
"[Oleksiak] did the right thing. It gave us life, too," Sullivan said. "We had a great start. For me, they can talk about that all they want, it gave us life, too. Jamie did a great job of sticking up for our team."
Less than four minutes after Simmonds' fisticuffs, Travis Konecny, the Flyers' "piss pot" that former GM Ron Hextall labeled earlier in the week, answered with a breakaway goal to tie the game and send a statement this was going to be different from the six-game playoff series in April.
"We knew it was going to be like this, especially after the way our season ended last year against these guys," Konecny said. "I kind of feel like whenever we play them, they think they have this swagger over us, so it's just not going to happen anymore."
"I didn't even realize T.K. scored and he f---ing scored, I was pretty pumped," said Simmonds, who was getting treated in the locker room for his fight when Konecny tied the game.
The Penguins had every reason to feel overly confident against the Flyers. Not only did Pittsburgh eliminate the Flyers in six games in the opening round of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, winning convincingly 7-0, 5-0 and 5-1 in three of those victories, but the Pens also swept the Flyers in all four regular-season games, scoring five goals in each of the contests.
"I think it had to do with today. I think our guys wanted to get that swagger back," head coach Dave Hakstol said. "We had a little bit of a burn in our saddle coming in here. I'm sure a little bit of it is a carryover from the playoff series last year, but I think it's more about what's happening today with this hockey team."
Over the years, the Flyers have proven to be successful when they play with a controlled snarl. One particular shift personified old-school Flyers hockey when Radko Gudas leveled Sidney Crosby twice on the same shift. Had that sequence played out at the Wells Fargo Center, Flyers Nation would have erupted at the sight of seeing No. 87 on his backside.
"I was excited that I did, he's a really good player and it doesn't happen too often that he gets hit like that," Gudas said. "I was fortunate enough that I was waiting for him to cut back and lucky for me he did."
Throughout the game, it was typical Flyers-Penguins bad blood. Crosschecks after the whistle. Talking smack after a stoppage in play. Matching minors between Dale Weise and Evgeni Malkin for unsportsmanlike conduct. A little hate was exactly what a desperate Flyers team needed.
"We're at our best when we have guys sticking up for one another," Anthony Stolarz said. "You saw a couple of scrums by the benches. Guys not taking any s--- from anyone, just stepping up for each other and standing up for each other. That's what makes a good team."
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