Flyers-Hurricanes: 5 things you need to know

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Flyers-Hurricanes: 5 things you need to know

Flyers at Hurricanes
7 p.m. on Comcast SportsNet

Fresh off a 2-1-1 homestand, the Flyers (26-23-11) will hit the road for a matchup with the Carolina Hurricanes (21-30-7) at PNC Arena on Tuesday night.

Here are five things to get you ready for the tilt:

1. Into the wild
When the Flyers were 13 points out of a wild-card spot on Jan. 16, not many people believed they had a shot at climbing back into the playoff race.

A month later, the Flyers, to their credit, have made things interesting. They enter Tuesday just one point behind ninth-place Florida and four points back of Boston, which owns the second and final wild-card spot.

How have they done it? Having the third-best power play in the league certainly helps, but their 8-1-4 run is mostly because of their improved play on the penalty kill and their defense finally finding some consistency. It’s also important to note they’ve managed to stay afloat without No. 1 netminder Steve Mason, who is nursing a lower-body injury.

Really the only area of concern right now is the Flyers’ play at even strength. Head coach Craig Berube has juggled the lines over the past week in hopes of sparking his team. The changes paid off in weekend wins over Nashville and Washington.

Now it’s time to buckle down. The Flyers have 22 games remaining, 10 against teams who are not currently in a playoff position. We could be in line for a frantic finish.

2. Wreck-it Rinaldo
When are the Flyers going to learn? Sunday was a perfect example of how Zac Rinaldo is a detriment to the team every time he takes the ice.

An argument can be made that the minor for elbowing he was whistled for in the first period against the Caps was a reputation call. That’s fine. But in the second period, he launched himself at Mike Green and found himself in an altercation after Jason Chimera took exception to the hit attempt. Rinaldo actually showed some restraint for once, refusing to drop his gloves with Chimera, but was on the wrong end of a bare knuckle punch to the jaw. Did Rinaldo deserve a five-minute major for fighting? No. But it’s clear that referees aren’t giving him any breaks because of his checkered past.

“I know if it was me, I would have been kicked out, probably suspended,” Rinaldo told reporters after the game. “That’s what just pissed me off.”

When you refuse to change your habits that have gotten you suspended before, do you really expect officials to show some sympathy? Rinaldo, after serving an eight-game suspension for a cheap shot on Kris Letang and sitting out two games as a healthy scratch, has fallen into the same routine, collecting 17 penalty minutes in his first two games back in the lineup. He was handed a 10-minute misconduct on Saturday against Nashville because he wouldn’t shut his mouth after a whistle. He just can’t seem to help himself.

Reckless behavior aside, has Rinaldo really done anything to deserve a spot on the roster anyway? Look at the numbers: Zero goals, two assists, 27 shots and 92 PIMs in 38 games. Where is the value? I understand benching Vinny Lecavalier because he’s slumping, but trotting out Rinaldo isn’t anywhere near close to being an upgrade. How many more chances does Rinaldo deserve?

3. Just Staal-ing?
Sitting 15th in the Eastern Conference and dead last in the Metropolitan Division with just 49 points this season, it’s obvious the Hurricanes will be sellers at the trade deadline.

Carolina has a list of impending unrestricted free agents. Veteran defensemen Andrej Sekera and Tim Gleason and forwards Pat Dwyer, Jiri Tlusty and Jay McClement will draw significant interest from contenders looking to bolster their lineups for a playoff run.

There was also some speculation that Pittsburgh was interested in re-acquiring center Jordan Staal, but Hurricanes general manager Ron Francis put an end to that buzz.

“We’re not moving Jordan Staal,” Francis told News & Observer reporter Chip Alexander.

A big hurdle coming up for Carolina is what to do with longtime captain Eric Staal, whose contract expires after the 2015-16 season. The Staal brothers could bring back substantial returns if the Hurricanes intend to rebuild. Stay tuned.

4. Keep an eye on …
Flyers: Claude Giroux snapped out of his offensive funk with a goal and an assist in Sunday’s 3-2 win over the Capitals. The Flyers’ captain has embraced a shoot-first mindset since being separated from winger Jakub Voracek, firing 11 shots on goal over his past two games. Wayne Simmonds has helped open things up for Giroux, who put an end to his 11-game goalless drought. Giroux will still get his chances with Voracek on the power play, but, for now, the trial separation seems to have sparked the top-line center.

Hurricanes: There hasn’t been many bright spots for Carolina this season, but the emergence of defenseman Justin Faulk is something Hurricanes fans can take solace in. The 22-year-old, who represented his team at the All-Star game last month, leads the Hurricanes in assists (26) and points (36) while averaging just over 24 minutes a game. He has tremendous confidence with the puck on his stick and a strong shot from the point. His defensive game is still a tad bit raw, but he’s certainly made up for it with his offensive acumen. He wears No. 27.

5. This and that
• The Flyers have killed off 34 of their last 38 shorthanded situations (89.5 percent).

• Jeff Skinner has six goals and six assists in 14 career games against the Flyers.

• Simmonds has six goals and four assists during a career-high eight-game point streak.

• Carolina has scored three goals against the Flyers this season. Eric Staal has two of them.

• The Flyers have received at least a point from their defensemen in six straight games with a total of two goals and 10 assists during that span.

Wayne Gretzky defends Connor McDavid's outburst over Brandon Manning

Wayne Gretzky defends Connor McDavid's outburst over Brandon Manning

PALM BEACH, Fla. — As the primary target of opponents over his Hall of Fame career, Wayne Gretzky can certainly empathize with the frustration of Oilers star Connor McDavid.

McDavid and Flyers defenseman Brandon Manning jostled all evening long in a 6-5 Edmonton loss. McDavid denounced the tactics of his opponent after the game, claiming Manning intentionally injured him last season; McDavid missed 37 games with a broken collarbone.

"I guess we can put the whole 'if he did it' thing to rest because what he said out there kind of confirmed that," said McDavid, who taunted Manning after scoring the second goal in the Oilers' loss.

"I think anybody who knows me or who has played with or against me along the road here, knows that I am not that kind of player," Manning said, according to a statement released by the Flyers. "I am not out there intentionally trying to hurt people. I'm a guy who plays the game hard and I take pride in that."

Gretzky didn't mind seeing that fire in McDavid, saying competitiveness is part of what makes the great ones great. And he said the targeting comes with the territory of being a superstar. It was something he and Mario Lemieux dealt with, too.

"And Connor, he's going to get tested every night, but this is not new for him," Gretzky said Friday at the NHL board of governors meetings. "He's been tested since he was a kid and then playing junior hockey and now in the NHL and he's always responded and done his part."

Michael Raffl's power moves impressing Flyers, adding another element to top line

Michael Raffl's power moves impressing Flyers, adding another element to top line

He did it last Sunday in Nashville.

And he did it again Thursday night against Edmonton.

Michael Raffl displayed power and speed to send the Flyers to their seventh straight victory and longest winning streak since 2011 Thursday with a 6-5 win over the Oilers.

"Raf has this stutter step that's undercover speedy," goalie Steve Mason said. "He used it in Nashville to get a big goal and then here tonight.

"It looks like he's going to stop fully up, but he finds another gear and he really adds another element to that line that brings physical play.

"He has that sneaky talent, too, that can make you pay."

Raffl received a bank pass off the wall from Jakub Voracek, stutter stepped and then blew by Oilers defenseman Oscar Klefbom, protecting the puck along the way before flipping it over goalie Jonas Gustavsson for the game-winning marker with 1:29 left in the game.

It was his sixth goal of the season and his second game-winner in three games.

"Jakey has been hard on me for three years now," Raffl said, referring to Voracek's pass, "and it's actually the first time it worked out.

"He wants me to make that play all the time. He's been hard on me. I threw a little fake in there, got around their D-man and chipped it up high."

Voracek, who tied a career high with four points (one goal, three assists) said after the game his pass was not as perfect as it appeared on tape, as it didn't hit Raffl in stride.

"I think we should use it a little bit more to be honest," Voracek said, "because if their D wants to have a gap on that, you know you put it off the boards, it's tough to handle for the defenseman. [Raffl] had to slow down a little bit, so next time I've got to put it better."

Juggling his lines in an attempt to find chemistry, Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol moved Raffl up from the third line to the top line with Voracek and captain Claude Giroux on Nov. 27. Coincidentally, that was the start of this seven-game winning streak.

On Thursday night, Raffl showcased the reasoning behind the move to the top line, a spot he's familiar with, having played with Giroux and Voracek in seasons' past.

"He's good from coming off either way as he enters the zone," Hakstol said. "He's got the ability to take it to the net. 

"Obviously at a critical time of the hockey game. But, that's Raffl when he's at his best. He's a power forward that can do those type of things offensively."

In his fourth season with the Flyers, the 28-year-old doesn't possess jaw-dropping skill. He's better suited for a third-line role, but drives play at 5-on-5 and is strong on the puck to move up into the top six. His style complements Giroux and Voracek's game well.

"[Raffl] complains a lot on the bench," Giroux quipped. "Nah, he was fired up there in the third. He is so strong on the puck. That's a big goal for us. He's been playing some great hockey right now for us. I think me and Jake are lucky to play with him right now."

"He does every little thing right," Voracek said. "He wins the battles. He wins so many puck battles in the corners and on the boards and gives me and G a lot of space to work with. He knows what to do to have success with us and he's been doing that."

Against the Oilers, Raffl was one of two European free agents the Flyers found to contribute to their win, with Pierre-Edouard Bellemare slowing down Connor McDavid.

It's been an avenue the Flyers have found some success in recent years. Raffl was a Paul Holmgren signing, while general manager Ron Hextall plucked Bellemare from the SHL.

"Since we signed him, I think he surprised everyone," Voracek said of Raffl. "He's got a lot of talent. He's a strong guy on the puck. He's skating well. He's got a great shot.

"I think he's one of the good players."

The Flyers described Raffl as a sneaky talent, someone who may not demand the respect from defensemen but has the ability to surprise and make them pay for playing lax against him.

But it's really simpler than that, according to Raffl.

"Just puck possession," he said. "Just focus on being the first on forecheck, digging out pucks. It's not a fun job to do, but somebody has to do it.

"They're two great players with the puck, I try to dig it out and get it to them and get in an open area and they'll find me eventually."

And they found him Thursday night when it mattered most.