FILE - Pittsburgh Penguins' Evgeni Malkin (71) and Sidney Crosby (87) watch a replay of a goal by Malkin during the first period of the team's NHL hockey game against the Minnesota Wild in Pittsburgh, in this Jan. 14, 2020, file photo. The faces around Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin change. The expectations around the Pittsburgh Penguins and their two longtime stars do not. After an offseason of retooling the coaching staff and tweaking the roster, the Penguins are hoping to rebound following a second straight early playoff exit. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar/File)

Close to Home: NHL’s East Division has unfriendly neighbours

PHILADELPHIA — Flyers fans have posted photos of Sidney Crosby in arena urinals, an uncouth custom to let the Penguins’ star know he will never be No. 1 in Philly.

“Crosby Sucks!” chants echo louder in Philadelphia than the “Let’s go Fly-ers!” chorus from the orange-and-black diehards that usually pack the place. The jeers, though, never really affected the Penguins’ captain. For all the statistical categories Crosby can usually be counted on to rank among the league leaders, there’s no doubt No. 87 is always tops in Philly as the hockey villain fans love to hate.

Crosby has 43 career goals in 70 games against the Flyers — more than any other team in the league. His 105 points are behind only the 113 he’s compiled against the New York Islanders. And for a player whose greatness has been sidelined for swaths of his career because of concussions, a sports hernia and a busted jaw, his 70 games played against the Flyers are the most against any opponent.

Game 71 should be a doozy: Crosby and the Penguins open the season Wednesday in Philadelphia to start the most freakish of NHL schedules — 56 games for each team, all against division foes.

Any anti-Crosby sentiment will need to come from piped-in crowd noise in the empty Wells Fargo Center, but East Division games this season include perhaps the most heated rivalries in the sport. The Flyers, Penguins, New York Islanders, New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers, Buffalo Sabres, Washington Capitals and Boston Bruins will play every other team in the division eight times.

“It’s very similar to playoffs, where there’s a lot of adjusting and having to adapt pretty quickly,” Crosby said. “I think that’ll be a challenge throughout this year.”

Crosby is right about the playoff-type feel. The Bruins, Penguins and Capitals have all won the Stanley Cup in the last 10 years, the Flyers earned the top seed in the Eastern Conference in the NHL bubble last season, and the Islanders reached the conference final.

There is no easy out. Not even the Sabres, who have a nine-year playoff drought but finished less than one percentage point behind Montreal from qualifying for the expanded playoffs.

Let the games begin.

“We have a Stanley Cup-contending team, and we can be if we play to our level and play to our potential,” Flyers coach Alain Vigneault said.

Who knows, maybe the Flyers can break through for the first time since 1975 and hoist the Stanley Cup.

Just don’t let any Flyers fans give them photos of Crosby when they do.

OLD FACES, NEW PLACE

The most surprising move of the off-season came when longtime Boston captain Zdeno Chara signed with the Capitals. The 43-year-old Chara helped the Bruins climb back into the top echelon of the NHL and win the Stanley Cup in 2011.

The 6-foot-9 Chara is a seven-time All-Star who now gets his measure of vengeance against the Bruins eight times this season.

“It’s going to be a strange feeling, I’m sure,” he said. “But I can’t tell you exactly how I’m going to feel at that time. I guess I’m going to have to wait until that time comes.”

BET ON IT

The Bruins (+250) are the betting favourite to win the East and the Flyers (+325) are right behind them. The Devils are the biggest longshot at +1600.

The Devils missed the playoffs each of the last two seasons and Jack Hughes, the No. 1 overall pick in 2019, had a tough rookie season with just seven goals.

“I really think he understands the game now,” coach Lindy Ruff said. “He’s not coming from a situation where, he’s sitting on top being the best player almost every night in a given game before he got to the NHL, where now you’re playing against guys that bigger, faster, stronger. I think he realizes all those parts.”

SCHEDULE BREAKDOWN

The New York tri-state area is a slice of hockey heaven this season. The Islanders play nine straight games without leaving the area from Feb. 23 to March 13 — seven home games bookended by dates at New Jersey.

The Rangers play 16 games between April 6 – May 5 in New York/New Jersey. They have 10 home games and road games against the Islanders and Devils over that span.

The Flyers have two days off before and after a game just once all season.

DON’T MISS IT

Crosby will earn the traditional silver stick presented to players when they reach 1,000 career games played. Barring injury and COVID-19 postponements, he’s scheduled to hit that milestone Feb. 14 against Washington. He’d become the first Penguins player to hit that mark in one uniform.

Crosby also has 1,263 points and should reach 1,300 by the end of the season in what should be a fun race with Washington’s Alex Ovechkin to get there. Ovechkin has 1,278 points and the career leader goals scored by a Russian-born player should also easily make that total.

___

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL

Dan Gelston, The Associated Press

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