Pittsburgh Penguins (31-20-1)
63 points – 4th Eastern Conference
at Philadelphia Flyers (26-21-3)
55 points – 6th Eastern Conference
Pre-game Buzz: Goaltender Marc Andre Fleury (fractured finger) will return to action this afternoon for the first time in over a week. Fleury went through his first full practice on Saturday and has deemed himself ready to go. Fleury will start one of the back-to-back games and is expected to start today.
Nick Johnson will appear in his second straight game after getting a late Saturday afternoon callup by the Penguins. Pascal Dupuis (facial injury) will return to the lineup, while Max Talbot (lower body) will miss his second straight game.
The Penguins lead the season series 3-1, though the Flyers took it to the Pens in their last matchup and have been the better team of late.
October 8, 2009. Wachovia Center
5-4 Penguins Win
Goals: Guerin, Staal, Malkin, Gologoski, Kennedy
December 15, 2009. Mellon Arena
6-1 Penguins Win
Goals: Staal (2), Crosby, Guerin, Fedotenko, Malkin
December 17, 2009. Wachovia Center
3-2 Penguins Win (SO)
Goals: Guerin, Crosby
January 7, 2010. Mellon Arena
7-4 Flyers Win
Goals: Crosby (2), Rupp, Cooke
Not Those Flyers
The last time these two teams faced off, the Flyers were last in the Atlantic Division and out of a playoff position. The Pens haven’t vacated fourth place in months, but now find their cross-state rivals two places back in the standings and trailing by only eight points.
How important is the special teams battle? The Capitals took it to Pittsburgh Thursday night with two power play goals on two chances. The Pens went 0-4 on the man advantage.
The special teams battle is the focal point of any game against the Flyers, who perennially post one of the best power plays in the league.
So far this year, the Flyers are third in the league on the power play, and Pittsburgh again finds themselves stuck next to last on the man advantage. In their last meeting, a 7-4 Philadelphia win, the Flyers posted two power play goals on three chances. The Penguins went 0-4.
In those two games, the Pens lost by three goals – each of the last goals on empty netters – and the other two coming off successful power plays by the opponents.
The penalty kill is not to blame. Power play goals are somewhat inevitable, and Pittsburgh is 13th in the league on the kill. But if the Pens could have converted just a few their own PP chances, the makeup of those games would inevitably have changed.
As has been the case since the Penguins began playing .500 hockey over a month ago, the struggling power play is no longer just an unfortunate inconvenience. It is costing the team wins, and there appears to be no commitment to making lasting changes of any kind.
Goaltending is Key
Brent Johnson did not benefit from spectacular defensive play on Thursday, but nonetheless was made to look like a backup by the potent Washington offense. Since breaking his finger against Edmonton, Fleury has not seen action. The Pens are 1-2 in his absence and have surrendered 16 goals.
Fleury will be back today, likely starting today’s game according to head coach Dan Bylsma, and the Pens very well may need him to fend off an improving Flyer’s offense. Though he was tagged for 4 goals on 15 shots in their last matchup, the Pens need Fleury.
For the Flyers, Ray Emery has just returned from abdominal surgery and has so far been impressive, shaking off a loss in his first game back to post three straight wins. Emery is 13-9-1 with a 2.81 GAA and .900 SV% this season.
The Flyers played Saturday night, a win over the Carolina Hurricanes. Should head coach Peter Laviolette rest Emery against the Pens, Michael Leighton will get the start. Leighton has gone 8-1 with a .921 SV%.
For the Pens, Fleury is 25-14-1 on the season with a 2.60 GAA and .908 SV%. Johnson is 6-5 with a 2.82 GAA and .910 SV%.
Is the Slump Over?
Evgeni Malkin has been the target of criticism this year for his mid-season slump, but appears to be breaking free of it. Malkin has 4 goals and 7 points in his last three games, picking up a hat trick against New York and assisting on all three Pittsburgh goals against the Caps Thursday.
The Flyers are certainly the hotter team coming into this matchup. Winners of three straight and seven of their last ten, Philadelphia has turned an ugly season around, jumping from 10th place in the East to 6th and creeping up on the Penguins in points.
Meanwhile, Pittsburgh has not put together three straight wins in over a month and is 5-5 in their last 10 games. With the Devils in solid position and the Islanders, Rangers and Flyers all suddenly hot again, Pittsburgh needs to take this matchup to maintain a good divisional record.
The rookie winger will make his return to the Pens lineup today. Johnson was recalled late Saturday afternoon due to Max Talbot being bothered with a lower body injury.
Johnson scored a goal in his first NHL game against Washington, playing on a line with Malkin and Ruslan Fedotenko.
Players to Watch
Philadelphia has big-name (and no-name) players who opponents need to keep tabs on at all times.
Winger Jeff Carter leads the Flyers with 42 points (19G, 23A). Captain Mike Richards leads all Flyers with 20 goals, while blueliner Chris Pronger leads the team with 28 points and a plus-18 rating.
While Pens fans love to hate winger Scott Hartnell, he has been mostly inept lately, scoring three goals in his last 25 games.
Daniel Carcillo is a thorn in the side of everyone these days, and the Pens will need to keep a close eye on the winger throughout the game. A fourth-liner with 11 points on the season, Carcillo has come under fire for fighting (and crushing) Ranger’s star goal-scorer Marian Gaborik on Thursday.
Godard’s Time Nearing End?
Eric Godard may be playing some of his last games as a Penguin in the coming weeks. Godard hasn’t seen more than five minutes of ice time in a single game since a 6-1 drubbing of Philadelphia over a month ago, and has played less than two minutes in two straight games.
Elite teams in the post-lockout era are proving they can win without enforcers. The Devils are a tough team, but have no enforcer types in their lineup. Washington dumped tough guy Donald Brashear in the offseason and sits atop the East.
Godard hasn’t scored a goal this season and has seen less ice time than any regular, yet still has amassed the second-most penalty minutes on the team. With players like Rupp, Adams and Cooke all very capable of toeing up to a fight, and talks of adding a winger before the trade deadline circulating, Godard’s will become the odd-man out when in the next few weeks when Chris Kunitz returns.
Key to Victory
Special teams. If the Pens get themselves into penalty trouble, or find themselves playing the type of bubble-hockey power play they’ve been playing all season long, they could find themselves only a few points above the rival Flyers in the standings.