Flyers-Islanders: 5 things you need to know

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Flyers-Islanders: 5 things you need to know

Flyers vs. Islanders
7 p.m. on Comcast SportsNet

After a five-day break, the Flyers (22-22-7) will try for a fifth consecutive win when they host the New York Islanders (32-17-1) at the Wells Fargo Center on Thursday night.

Here’s what you should know before puck drop:

1. On the mend
The time off served as a chance for a few Flyers to get healthy.

Defenseman Nicklas Grossmann, who missed the last 10 games with a shoulder injury, and center Scott Laughton, who sat out seven straight while recovering from a concussion, are expected to be back in the Flyers’ lineup on Thursday.

Grossmann wasn’t paired with his usual partner, Mark Streit, at practice on Wednesday. Instead, the veteran defenseman skated with Andrew MacDonald. That means Carlo Colaiacovo will likely be the odd man out against the Islanders.

As for Laughton, the 20-year-old rookie will skate on a new line with Ryan White and Wayne Simmonds on his wings. This combination gives the Flyers two forwards who can take faceoffs in Laughton and White.

Still out for the Flyers, however, are winger Michael Raffl (pneumonia) and blueliner Braydon Coburn (foot).

2. Battle of special teams
The Flyers boast the NHL’s fourth-best power play (23.4 percent). Meanwhile, the Islanders enter Thursday with the league’s worst penalty kill (72.7 percent). Seems like a favorable matchup for the orange and black, right? Not exactly.

The Isles are a sneaky bunch when down a man. They have superior speed, which is a major reason why the club has collected eight shorthanded markers this season — most in the NHL.

The Flyers have to take care of the puck when they go on the man advantage in this tilt. Zone entries and handling passes at the blue line will be crucial. The Isles tend to cheat up high if they’re confident they can intercept a pass. Think sharks swimming in circles around their prey.

“They do a good job of reading plays and going the other way,” Flyers coach Craig Berube said (see story). “It’s really important that we are good with the puck. That’s the thing for me. It’s always a sloppy play that guys get a breakaway.”

The Flyers have seen this firsthand. Nikolai Kulemin blocked a Matt Read shot attempt from the point and scored on a shorthanded breakaway in the Isles’ 7-4 rout of the Flyers on Jan. 19. The scary thing is Kulemin isn’t even the Isles’ fastest penalty killer. Michael Grabner can turn the jets on in a flash. It would be wise for the Flyers to err on the side of caution, especially up high. If they make clean passes, cycle the puck and avoid turnovers, they’ll easily reveal why the Isles possess the league’s worst PK.

3. In the cage
How about another goaltending duel?

The last time Steve Mason and Jaroslav Halak squared off, both netminders were virtually unbeatable in a 1-0 Islanders win at Nassau Coliseum on Nov. 24. It’s not often you see two goalies pick up a shutout in the same game, but Mason and Halak most definitely earned the accolade. Mason turned aside 46 shots in regulation and overtime, while Halak made 21 saves before picking up the win in a shootout.

Halak wasn’t as sharp in the second meeting between the Flyers and Islanders this season, but played well enough to help his team to a victory on Jan. 19. Mason missed that game because of a lower-body injury.

Since returning, however, Mason has been lights out. He’s gone 5-0-0 with a 1.15 goals-against average and .964 save percentage in his last six appearances.

Facing Halak will be no easy task, though. The veteran netminder has won his last four starts against the orange and black while posting a 1.22 goals-against average.

4. Keep an eye on ...
Flyers: You have to love the way Michael Del Zotto has elevated his game over the past month. The first-year Flyer is currently riding a six-game point streak (three goals, four assists), which is a career high. More importantly, he’s been much better in the defensive zone. An argument can be made that Del Zotto and Luke Schenn have been the team’s best pair since mid-January. Who saw that coming?

Islanders: Every time he laces up his skates, John Tavares is the Islander to watch. The 24-year-old enters Thursday with a team-high 23 goals and 49 points. He doesn’t shy away from heavy traffic areas and has excellent hand/eye coordination, which makes for plenty of offensive opportunities. It should be interesting to see how he fares without right-hand man Kyle Okposo, who is sidelined with a detached retina.

5. This and that
• Since the start of the lockout-shortened 2013 season, the Flyers have posted a 5-2-3 record against the Islanders.

• The Islanders are 16-2-0 against Metropolitan Division foes this season.

• The Flyers have outscored their opponents by a combined 13-7 margin during their four-game winning streak.

• Over their last seven games, the Islanders have killed off just nine of their 19 shorthanded situations.

• Del Zotto has five goals and 17 points in 39 games this season. He had just three goals and 16 points in 67 total games between the Rangers and Predators in 2013-14.

Ron Hextall, Flyers follow through with wingers on Day 2 of NHL draft

Ron Hextall, Flyers follow through with wingers on Day 2 of NHL draft

CHICAGO — If the Flyers had somehow managed to finagle a third pick in the first round of the NHL draft on Friday night, they had a specific kid in mind.

Guelph left winger Isaac Ratcliffe.

"When you really like a guy, you go after him and that's what happened," general manager Ron Hextall said after trading up in the second round Saturday at United Center to draft the power forward (see story).

"He fits the organizational needs at left wing. Real good size. He plays hard and can score goals. He is really raw, at the front end of the process. Some are average and some on the back end of the process. He's got work to do. We like his upside."

The Flyers swapped their own second-round pick, plus two more (75th and 108th overall selections) with Arizona to move from 44th to 35th and select Ratcliffe (see Day 2 draft tracker).

"He is a prototypical power forward," Hextall said of the 18-year-old. "Didn't quite have the power down yet in terms of his body. He needs to put some weight on and add strength. Real excited about him."

The Flyers came into the draft with 11 picks and ended up with nine because of a couple deals. They finished with seven forwards (three left wingers), one D-man, a goalie, and have 10 picks already stockpiled for 2018, too.

Speaking of goalies, Hextall didn't foresee himself taking one early in the draft. Yet he did, selecting Russian Kirill Ustimenko at No. 80 in the third round.

"I'm not gonna chase a goalie," Hextall said days earlier.

Did he chase this kid? Well, Ustimenko, 18, was considered to be a possible sleeper. NHL Central Scouting had him ranked fifth internationally. The Flyers saw a lot of him overseas.

"We did not chase him," Hextall said. "We were surprised he fell there. We actually talked about him much earlier. Our guys really liked him and our comfort level was better than other teams."

The 6-foot-3, 187-pound Ustimenko catches left and had some impressive numbers in 27 games for MHK Dynamo St. Petersburg this season with a 1.74 goals-against average and .938 save percentage.

If you are keeping track, that's Anthony Stolarz, Carter Hart, Alex Lyon, Felix Sandstrom, Matej Tomek and now Ustimenko.

That's an enormous number of Flyers goalie prospects at this point.

Left winger Matthew Strome fell into their laps in the fourth round, where the Flyers had back-to-back picks at 106 and 107.

They took Strome (No. 106), the third brother in recent drafts, joining Dylan (2015 draft/Coyotes) and Ryan (2011/Islanders), who has played 258 games for New York.

"Call a spade a spade — his skating has to improve," Hextall said of Matthew. "We all know it. He's a good hockey player with good size. He makes plays, scores goals and knows how to play the game.

"He's got one deficiency there he can focus on and we like where we got him. It's up to Matthew to put the work in."

A 6-3, 207-pound left winger, Strome, 18, was projected to go in the second round. Upset?

"Not really," Strome replied. "Just being drafted and being one of the top 300 players or whatever it is, just to be honored, it's very special.

"I'm going to use it as motivation to prove people wrong. If people did think I slipped down, I'm gonna prove them wrong, that they made the wrong choice."

He said "all" the attention in his family has been on his brothers. Now it's his turn. His brothers helped prepare him for the moment.

"Entering my first OHL year, they told me there would be ups and downs and I would have to work through it," Strome said. "The past couple weeks, they told me, 'Enjoy the moment, it goes by fast.'

"Once it's over, you're on that team for three years and you've got to make [sure] that first impression on them is really good."

At No. 107, the Flyers tabbed 18-year-old Russian right winger Maksim Sushko (6-0/185), who last season played for Owen Sound (OHL), where he scored 17 goals with 32 points in 54 games. He spoke through an interpreter.

"I model my game after [Nikita] Kucherov of Tampa Bay," he said. "I like a physical style of play and give out assists. I'd like to become a better sniper."

In the fifth round, at No. 137, the Flyers tabbed 18-year-old left winger Noah Cates, from Stillwater High School in Minnesota.

He served as captain of his team and scored 20 goals with 65 points in 25 games last season and has committed to the University of Minnesota-Duluth.

In the sixth round, at No. 168, the Flyers chose smallish (5-10, 163) 17-year-old Swedish center Olle Lycksell, who played for Linkoping last season in the Super Elite League where he had nine points in 29 games.

"He's a hard worker who understands the game and has good hockey sense," Hextall said.

Hextall had two final picks in the seventh round.

At No. 196, the Flyers took their only defenseman in this draft, overage Wyatt Kalynuk, who is 6-2, 186 and 20 years old.

"Really good skater," Hextall said. "Good mobility and size, good puck skills. He's been through drafts and he's going to Wisconsin, which we really like. So we have four years with him."

Ironically, Hextall traded their final pick at No. 199 to Montreal for a seventh-round pick next year so the Canadiens could choose goalie Cayden Primeau, who happens to be Keith Primeau's son.

Habs GM Marc Bergevin called and asked for the pick.

"I thought he would go sooner than he did," Hextall said.

Ron Hextall doesn't make move for veteran goalie; Steve Mason 'still in the mix'

Ron Hextall doesn't make move for veteran goalie; Steve Mason 'still in the mix'

CHICAGO — While the Flyers picked up a young first-round centerman in Nolan Patrick — who many feel will be in their lineup this season — at this weekend's NHL draft, they returned home with one major dilemma unresolved.
 
They still don't have a veteran goalie to pair with Michal Neuvirth next season.
 
The draft is usually a pretty good place to piece together a deal for a goalie about to become a free agent or one already under contract who a team might be willing to move.
 
In the Flyers' case, general manager Ron Hextall said nothing came about. That might be because a couple of teams made some moves prior to the draft involving goalies and there doesn't seem to be a rush to fill the spots.
 
"I didn't expect to [do a deal]," Hextall said. "I would have liked to have it done a month ago. But I am not going to do something just for the sake of having something in place.
 
"We are going to do our due diligence. Sometimes you have to wait and sometimes it's part of the process to see what is out there. It's a high priority. We have to get something in place."
 
Three teams have three goalies — Arizona, Dallas and Carolina. And there are several in free agency.
 
Hextall likes to get a jump on free agency but …
 
"I don't know," he replied when asked if that is where he's headed.
 
Maybe a trade? Again, no commitment. Hextall said he's not worried.
 
"My comfort level is there are a number of goalies out there," Hextall said. "So, there's not six No. 1 spots out there and just one goalie. I have comfort in that.
 
"We are still doing our due diligence and in the end, it's probably going to come down to a guy we take and term and money. I might like this guy, but is he asking unreal term? We'll go somewhere else. I keep telling you, [Steve Mason] is still in the mix."
 
Like a lifeboat in the vast ocean.