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.