Philadelphia Flyers

Flyers-Avalanche: 5 things you need to know

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Flyers-Avalanche: 5 things you need to know

Flyers at Avalanche
9 p.m. on Comcast SportsNet

The Flyers (14-16-6) will look to close out 2014 on a positive note when they battle the Colorado Avalanche (13-15-8) at the Pepsi Center on New Year's Eve.

Here are five things to get you ready for Wednesday's clash in Denver:

1. Same old song
Let's face it, the Flyers aren't going anywhere unless they fix their much-maligned special teams.

They've gone six consecutive games without a power-play goal. Six. The franchise hasn't had a longer drought on the man advantage since going seven straight games without a PP tally in November of 2002.

“Special teams make a lot of difference in games,” Flyers captain Claude Giroux said (see story). “Our power play has to find a way, and it doesn’t matter if it is pretty or not. ... We just have to find a way.”

Then there's penalty killing, or lack thereof. The Flyers have not fared well in shorthanded situations on their trip. They've surrendered six power-play markers and have dropped to dead last in the NHL in PK effectiveness (74.0 percent).

Despite a 3-2-0 record in the first five games of their trip, the Flyers have somehow managed to lose two points in the standings since departing Philadelphia. The final three stops on their eight-game tour are all seemingly winnable matchups (Colorado, Carolina and New Jersey) and should result in six points. The key word there is should. If the Flyers don't clean up their special-teams play, it will be incredibly difficult to gain ground in the Metropolitan Division.

2. Ummm ... berger?
One of the few bright spots from Monday's loss in Arizona was the third-period surge led by R.J. Umberger. Yes, R.J. Umberger. If you needed to re-read that sentence or do a double take, I understand.

It's no secret the veteran forward has struggled in his first season back in a Flyers sweater, but he had his best outing in what seems like a lifetime against the Coyotes. He potted two goals in the third period and almost guided the Flyers to a comeback. Who could make that up?

It's a shame the Flyers waited until eight minutes were remaining in the game to show some fight, though. If they can rally back from a three-goal deficit in such a short time frame, imagine what they'd be capable of doing if they played a full 60 minutes.

3. Aving a tough time
With a star-filled lineup featuring players such as Jarome Iginla, Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon, Matt Duchene and Danny Briere, it would be safe to assume the Avalanche would have no problem finding the back of the net.

Surprisingly, that hasn't been the case. Second-year bench boss Patrick Roy's biggest concern is the lack of scoring from his key forwards.

MacKinnon has scored just once in his last 18 games. Duchene has just one assist in his past seven. Briere has been held goalless in 11 straight contests. And Landeskog hasn't found twine since Nov. 29.

What is going on in Colorado? Well for starters, the Avs aren't getting pucks on net. They registered a season-low 16 shots in Monday's loss to the St. Louis Blues and are averaging just 26.2 shots per game in December.

Much like the Flyers, the Avs have been crippled by inconsistent play this season. After stringing together a three-game winning streak heading into the Christmas break, Colorado has dropped back-to-back contests. Sound familiar? That's because the Flyers have done the same exact thing. This game could be a barn burner.

4. Keep an eye on ...
Flyers: Vinny Lecavalier was actually one of the Flyers' most productive forwards against Arizona. He had has feet moving the entire game and finished with a team-high six shots on goal. It was an encouraging performance for the veteran, who has just five goals and nine points in 22 games this season. He's looked much better since being placed with Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Chris VandeVelde on the fourth line. With the way the trio has been forechecking, Lecavalier should continue to get quality chances.

Avalanche: As mentioned above, Colorado has no shortage of skilled forwards. So it's somewhat shocking to see Alex Tanguay, an aging veteran, leading the team in scoring with 24 points (12 goals). That's not to say Tanguay isn't gifted, quite the opposite. The 35-year-old has the ability to hold onto the puck for long periods of time and has terrific vision. And with many of his teammates mired in scoring slumps, Tanguay has found a way to consistently produce. He just needs some help.

5. This and that
• This will be the final meeting between these two clubs this season. Giroux and Jakub Voracek had three points apiece in a 4-3 win over Colorado on Nov. 8 at the Wells Fargo Center.

• The Flyers haven't won at the Pepsi Center since Dec. 27, 2002.

• The Avalanche have allowed 1,217 shots on goal this season, third-most in the NHL.

• The Flyers have gone 0 for 14 on the man advantage during their current trip.

• Colorado has four skaters who are minus-10 or worse this season.

Flyers GM Ron Hextall: 'We have a tough roster to crack right now, which is good'

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Flyers GM Ron Hextall: 'We have a tough roster to crack right now, which is good'

VOORHEES, N.J. — With 26 players still competing to make the Flyers' 23-man opening day roster, the competition over the final few spots is heating up.

"We have a tough roster to crack right now, which is good for us," Flyers general manager Ron Hextall said Saturday after practice.

The Flyers already trimmed 18 players from their roster Thursday, but the most difficult decisions lie ahead. The tightest battle appears to be developing at defenseman, where Brandon Manning and rookies Samuel Morin and Robert Hagg are all vying for two spots. Travis Sanheim is still in the mix, but will likely start the season at Lehigh Valley.

So far, there is no clear winner in sight.

"We're going to monitor the situation as we go along here," Hextall said. "We'll see what we have with injuries and whatnot, and we'll make decisions at the appropriate time."

"They've all played well. They're all here for a reason still. We could've sent one of them down if they didn't deserve to be here, but at this point, they all deserve to be here."

Both Morin and Hagg have impressed this training camp and preseason. Manning has experience but is also working his way back from offseason back surgery — though Hextall does not sound concerned.

"There's nothing that tells me or certain information that I have from our staff that he's not ready to go," Hextall said, "so as far I'm concerned, he's 100 percent ready to go."

Some cuts will be easier than others. As expected, Alex Lyon was demoted to Lehigh Valley on Saturday.

Between Lyon and one of the blueliners, the roster will eventually get down to 25. That means two forwards will eventually wind up out of the equation, and the three players on the fringe fighting over that one spot are running out of time.

"We have four (preseason games) left," Hextall said. "Our big guys have to play, so we're getting ready for the season now. There's still players in the mix, but you get down as quick as you can and go from there."

Hextall acknowledged spots are "hard to come by" for prospects such Mike Vecchione, who has only appeared in two preseason games thus far. However, the Flyers are not viewing a demotion as a disappointment for any of their young talent.

"We'll see what Vechs, what he does," Hextall said, "and if he has to start out down below, or a couple other guys have to start out down below, that's the way it is."

In addition to the 18 cuts the Flyers made, two players will wind up on injured reserve to begin the season. Winger Colin McDonald and center Cole Bardreau are finished for the remainder of camp and preseason.

Bardreau is out for three-to-four weeks with an upper-body injury. McDonald is down for an undisclosed number of weeks with a lower-body injury.

Barring any additional major injuries, the Flyers intend to carry a full 23-man roster in the regular season, which is set to open Oct. 4 at San Jose.

"You plan certain things in injuries and performance," Hextall said. "You have to adjust on the fly."

"Right now, I'd say we plan 23, but see who gets injured — if a guy is injured, how long is he gonna be — all that kind of stuff. We'll adjust as we go along here, but right now, I'd say we plan on 23."

Roster cuts
The Flyers on Saturday continued to trim their roster. Forwards Greg Carey, Corban Knight and Phil Varone and defensemen Mark Alt, T.J. Brennan and Will O'Neill were assigned to Lehigh Valley after clearing waivers as well as Lyon.

Rating 5 changes the NHL made to its rulebook

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Rating 5 changes the NHL made to its rulebook

If you have witnessed preseason hockey this past week, you are well aware that the NHL is buckling down on its rulebook and even revising it. An excess of penalties and power plays have occurred as a result of these changes. Are they good for the game? I examine each of the five new rules or changes to the existing rulebook. 

Rule 78.7 (b) — A coach's challenge on an offside play — If the result of the challenge is that the play was “onside,” the goal shall count and the team that issued the challenge shall be assessed a minor penalty for delaying the game.

In 2015, the NHL granted each coach a challenge they could utilize in the event of overturning an incorrect call on the ice. If the challenge failed and the original call stood, then the challenging coach would forfeit the team’s timeout. Starting this season, a failed challenge on an onsides call in which there’s a goal will result in a two-minute minor penalty.   

By doing so, the NHL instituted a method to help maintain the game’s integrity in the event of a missed call by a linesman, as many coaches hold onto their challenge at a critical juncture — typically during the third period. Now with a two-minute penalty, it’s a way of reversing course without actually taking away the challenge. It's as if the league is saying we want you to have a challenge, but not really. The league is now discouraging teams from using it. As we’ve seen over the past few years, offsides calls can be measured in millimeters — that’s how arbitrary it’s become. But to penalize an entire team for a coaching staff’s misjudgment is excessive, and as we’ll see this season, it will sway the outcomes of a few games. Forfeiting a timeout for losing a challenge is acceptable, but killing a two-minute power play? Absurd, and for that I give it …

Two thumbs down   

Rule 61.1 — Slashing — Any forceful or powerful chop with the stick on an opponent’s body, the opponent’s stick, or on or near the opponent’s hands that, in the judgment of the referee is not an attempt to play the puck, shall be penalized as slashing.

Flyers fans can call out Sidney Crosby for emphasizing this rule, which is not a rule change but simply the enforcement of an existing rule. Crosby violated this in the worst way when he performed a machete slice over the hands of Senators defenseman Mark Methot late in the season. The result was a broken finger, nearly severed from the tip and the loss of one of Ottawa’s top defensemen for weeks. Watch the video and you can hear Methot scream in pain as Crosby took his whack.

In the preseason, we have seen more slashing than department store prices during Black Friday. It’s out of control, not the slashing itself, but the slashing calls. As the rule states, it’s a "forceful or powerful chop," which usually requires a two-handed grip. However, the referees have resorted to blowing the whistle for a one-handed love tap. As Shayne Gostisbehere said Wednesday, “When they blow the whistle and everyone’s like, ‘What just happened?’ That’s not a penalty.”  

I suspect come October when the regular season begins, the officials will ease up on their slashing calls, but it definitely creates a gray area, much like the interference call. Over the course of the season, some refs will whistle everything, while others will let stuff go. If it protects the league from injury, especially serious injury in cases like Methot and even Johnny Gaudreau, it can be beneficial, but I see some inconsistency from game-to-game and for that I give it ...

One thumb up ... my good, non-slashed thumb

Rule 76.4 — Faceoff positioning and procedure — The players taking part shall take their position so that they will stand squarely facing their opponent’s end of the rink and clear of the ice markings (where applicable).

Like the slashing penalty previously discussed, this is another enforcement of an existing rule. In other words, the league wants to cut down on cheating during faceoffs. You know when players began cheating on faceoffs? Since the inception of the faceoff. In fact, I can recall producing a three-minute story when I was working at a Nashville TV station on how players gain advantages and bend the rules on faceoffs. Three minutes. On cheating! 

Now, those L-shaped lines are no longer suggestions or recommendations, but strict guidelines of where the players should stand prior to a faceoff. If a team is caught twice during the same faceoff (and it doesn’t have to be the same player), the result is a two-minute minor penalty. The Islanders' Josh Ho-Sang was a guilty offender twice during Wednesday’s game in Allentown and the Flyers benefited with a power play in each instance. The league’s explanation states they want to protect players from banging heads, and more importantly, protect the linesman dropping the puck. 

Like the slashing penalty, I’m curious to see which linesmen strictly enforce this rule and which ones will be a little laxer. This is another one of those penalties (like the challenge call) that you certainly don’t want to impact the outcome of a game. The league has good intentions for enforcing Rule 76.4, but will they have consistent enforcement? And for that I give it …

One thumb up

Rule 87.1 — No timeout shall be granted to the defensive team following an icing.

Once again, here’s another example of a moment when a coach would intervene during a critical point of a hockey game (usually late during the third period). An attacking team is applying pressure in the offensive zone of a close game and the defensive team, obviously gassed, flips the puck out of the zone for an icing. That coach proceeds to call a timeout to allow his team to catch its breath and grab some water before the ensuing faceoff.

My take on the new rule: Love it! This rule should have been implemented years ago. You can penalize a team for icing without actually calling a penalty. Allowing a timeout does exactly the opposite and circumvents any drawbacks of icing. By forcing a tired group of guys to line up and take a faceoff right away is precisely the way it should be handled, and for that, I give this new rule …

Two big thumbs up

Eliminating Rule 80.4 — Numerical advantage on faceoffs — When a team on the power play high sticks the puck, the ensuing faceoff will be conducted at one of the two faceoff spots in their defending zone.

This is the abridged version of the rule that was roughly half a page long. Playing the puck with a high stick is instinctual and when the game is played at warp speed, a player’s natural inclination is to raise their stick in an attempt to knock the puck out of the air. When a player is guilty of a high stick, the whistle is blown and a faceoff occurs. Now that this rule has been eliminated entirely from the rulebook, the ensuing faceoff will take place in the zone in which the infraction was committed.

No team should be given a territorial advantage as a result of a high stick. I’m surprised it’s taken this long to acknowledge the absurdity of Rule 80.4, and for finally acknowledging this, I give the elimination of this rule …

Two thumbs up