Flyers-Maple Leafs: 5 things you need to know

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Flyers-Maple Leafs: 5 things you need to know

Flyers vs. Maple Leafs
7 p.m. on Comcast SportsNet

The Flyers (21-22-7) will try for a season-best fourth consecutive victory when they take on the nose-diving Toronto Maple Leafs (22-24-4) at the Wells Fargo Center on Saturday.

Here’s what you need to know before puck drop:

1. Change it up?
Is there a change coming to the Flyers’ blue line? Nicklas Grossmann, who has missed the team’s last nine games with a shoulder injury, has been skating all week and appears to be ready to return.

“Just taking it a day at a time,” he said after practice on Friday. “Every day it’s getting better. That’s the way we want to. We haven’t made any decisions for [Saturday].”

Here’s the issue: The Flyers are rolling and have received much better play from their defensive corps as of late. Hockey players are creatures of habit. Will head coach Craig Berube run the risk of throwing off his team’s chemistry? And if so, who comes out?

Mark Streit has been one of the highest-scoring defensemen in the entire NHL since early December. He’s safe. Michael Del Zotto is riding a career-high five-game point streak. He’s not going anywhere. Nick Schultz picked up his first goal as Flyer on Thursday and is arguably the club’s most reliable D-man. He’s earned his spot as a regular.

That leaves Carlo Colaiacovo, Luke Schenn and Andrew MacDonald. All three players have served as healthy scratches at some point this season. If Grossmann dresses against the Leafs, it would be safe to assume Colaiacovo would be the odd man out. Then again, Berube has made stranger decisions this season. It wouldn’t be a surprise if any of the three were benched in favor of Grossmann on Saturday.

2. Terrible in Toronto
To say it’s a difficult time for Leafs nation would be a severe understatement. Toronto is in a complete freefall with no end in sight. 

The Leafs have posted a 1-10-1 record in January, a stretch in which they’ve been outscored, 40-16. They’re one game away from matching their worst losing streak since 1996. They’ve looked listless at best under interim coach Peter Horachek, who took over behind the bench after Randy Carlyle was fired on Jan. 6. Their players have been called uncoachable. Their fans are throwing jerseys on the ice in outrage. Essentially, the Leafs have become the laughing stock of the NHL since the calendar switched over to the year 2015.

It all starts up front. Toronto has just seven goals during its 0-7-1 slide. Even worse, the Leafs have converted on just two of their last 26 power-play attempts in that stretch. Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk and company simply aren’t getting it done.

3. Injuries
Defenseman Braydon Coburn (foot) and center Scott Laughton (upper-body) remain sidelined for the Flyers. 

Forward Michael Raffl is listed as questionable. He’s missed the last two games because of an illness. If he’s unable to play, Petr Straka, who picked up his first NHL point on Thursday, will continue to skate in his place with Ryan White and Wayne Simmonds.

For the Leafs, captain Dion Phaneuf (hand) is out. 

4. Keep an eye on …
Flyers: Chris VandeVelde entered 2014-15 with just one career NHL goal to his name. In 40 games this season, the 27-year-old already has seven markers — all at even-strength. He’s picked up four of them in his last five games while skating with Vinny Lecavalier and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare on the Flyers’ fourth line. The trio has supplied a ton of energy on the forecheck and has been sound in the defensive zone, as well. Look for them to continue buzzing.

Maple Leafs: There aren’t many Toronto players worth watching, but JVR is having a tremendous season. He enters Saturday leading the Maple Leafs in goals (21) and is second on the team in points (43). The 25-year-old is finally using his 6-foot-3, 200-pound frame to his advantage, both along the boards and in front of the net. His defensive game is still raw, hence his minus-16 rating, but he’s always been a more-offensive minded forward anyway. He’s paid to score goals. Toronto needs as many as they can get right now.

5. This and that
• Seven of the last eight meetings between the Flyers and Maple Leafs have been decided by multiple goals. The Flyers have won the last two by a combined score of 11-6.

• Kessel and JVR have combined for 41 of Toronto’s 141 goals this season.

• The Flyers have scored at least three goals and one power-play marker in five straight tilts.

• Jonathan Bernier, who allowed possibly the worst goal of the season Thursday, is 2-3-0 with a 4.78 goals-against average and .865 save percentage in five career starts against the Flyers.

• Claude Giroux has eight goals and 15 assists in 21 career games against the Maple Leafs.

NHL Playoffs: Penguins beat Senators in 2OT of Game 7 to reach Stanley Cup Final

NHL Playoffs: Penguins beat Senators in 2OT of Game 7 to reach Stanley Cup Final

BOX SCORE

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Penguins are heading back to the Stanley Cup Final.

Chris Kunitz beat Craig Anderson 5:09 into the second overtime to give the defending champions a 3-2 victory over the Ottawa Senators in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final Thursday night.

Kunitz scored twice, his first two of the playoffs. Justin Schultz added the other in his return from an upper-body injury, and Matt Murray stopped 28 shots on his 23rd birthday.

The Penguins are trying to become the first team since the Detroit Red Wings in 1998 to win back-to-back titles. They will host Western Conference champion Nashville in Game 1 on Monday night.

Mark Stone and Ryan Dzingel scored for Ottawa. The Senators rallied twice to tie it, with Dzingel making it 2-2 with 5:19 left in regulation.

Craig Anderson made 39 saves, but couldn't get a handle on Kunitz's shot from just outside the left circle. The Senators are 0-6 in Game 7s in franchise history.

The Senators forced a return trip to Pittsburgh -- where they lost 7-0 loss in Game 5 on Sunday -- by leaning heavily on Anderson in a 2-1 Game 6 victory, putting both teams at odds with history.

Ottawa came in 0-for-25 years in winner-take-all games, while the Penguins were 0-7 in Game 7s at home in series in which they also dropped Game 6.

Ottawa coach Guy Boucher told his resilient team to not get caught up in the big picture but instead focus on the small ones, a recipe that carried the Senators throughout a bumpy transition under their first-year head coach to the brink of the franchise's second Cup appearance.

The Penguins, trying to become the first defending champion to return to the finals since Detroit in 2009, came in confident they would advance if they could replicate their dominant Game 6, when they were undone only by Anderson's brilliance.

Pittsburgh has been nearly unflappable in the face of adversity under Mike Sullivan, going 12-2 in playoff games following a loss over the last two springs. He encouraged his team to "just play," code for fighting through Ottawa's neutral zone-clogging style and the bumping, grabbing and pulling that comes along with it.

A chance to play for their sport's ultimate prize on the line, the sheets of open ice the Penguins found so easily in Games 4-6 closed up. For most of the first 30 minutes, loose pucks hopped over sticks to spoil some scoring opportunities while Anderson and Murray gobbled up the rest.

Kunitz, relegated to the fourth line since returning from injury in the second round, picked up his first postseason goal in a calendar year when he completed a two-on-one with Conor Sheary -- a healthy scratch in Games 5 and 6 -- by slipping the puck by Anderson 9:55 into the second period.

The momentum lasted all of 20 seconds. Ottawa responded immediately with Stone -- who stretched his left skate to stay onside -- fired a wrist shot that handcuffed Murray.

Pittsburgh kept coming. Schultz, returning after missing four games with an upper-body injury, zipped a shot from the point through Kunitz's screen and into the net with 8:16 left in the third.

Once again, the Penguins could not hold the lead. Dzingel set up at the right post and banged home a rebound off Erik Karlsson's shot that hit the left post and caromed off Murray's back right to Dzingel's stick.

Notes
The home team is 21-20 in overtime Game 7s in NHL playoff history. ... Pittsburgh F Patric Hornqvist skated during warmups, but was held out of the lineup for a sixth straight game with an upper-body injury. ... Karlsson had 16 assists in the playoffs to set a team record. ... The Penguins are 10-7 in Game 7s. ... It was the fifth one-goal game of the series.

Are we there yet? Philly Sports Talk examines the state of the Flyers

Are we there yet? Philly Sports Talk examines the state of the Flyers

All week on Philly Sports Talk on CSN, we examine how our teams got to this point and where they are in the rebuilding process. 
 
Today, we finish up by taking a look at the Flyers.

 
How did we get here?
The Flyers' rebuild had begun when Ron Hextall returned to his old stomping grounds in the summer of 2013 as the team's new assistant general manager.
 
He took over GM duties after one season and the philosophical change was in place. Paul Holmgren was made president and Hextall's imprint, which had already started, was ready to become bigger.
 
What Hextall inherited was a cap-stricken team fresh off a first-round playoff loss, an organization that had tried to spend its way to immediate results instead of putting greater focus on the long game.
 
Some of the past decisions are well-documented: signing enigmatic goalie Ilya Bryzgalov to a nine-year, $51 million deal in 2011 after trading for him. With a buyout, the Flyers are still paying Bryzgalov through 2027. Signing veteran center Vinny Lecavalier to a five-year, $22.5 million contract in 2013. And signing imposing defenseman Chris Pronger to a seven-year, $34.55 million extension — nobody could foresee the unfortunate concussion issues that suddenly derailed Pronger's career, but it was nonetheless a hurdle for the Flyers moving forward.
 
Hextall has adeptly maneuvered through much of those rocky waters.
 
Now, the Flyers are a more cost-efficient (partly because they have to be in this salary cap world), draft-oriented organization planning for the future while not ignoring the present. This rebuild hasn't been a total demolition, but more of a retooling — a smart but tricky process, especially down the line.
 
Are the Flyers on the right path back to prosperity?
The youth is coming.
 
Hextall, oftentimes close to the vest, made that abundantly clear at his end-of-the-season press conference.
 
"Our young players, they've done enough," Hextall said in early April. "Our young players are going to get a long look. We don't plan on going out and signing veterans on the back end. Our kids, it's time to give them a shot, and we're going to do that."
 
But the really hard part is just beginning — results. Can the prospects catch up and meet the current core? The pressure for it to start has never been higher.
 
Help does appear to be on the way, though, for a team that regressed this season and missed the playoffs for the third time in the past five years.
 
Anthony Stolarz, Alex Lyon, Felix Sandstrom and Carter Hart give the Flyers future options in net.
 
Two promising prospects are expected to join Ivan Provorov, Shayne Gostisbehere and company on the blue line.
 
Oskar Lindblom, a dynamic 20-year-old winger, could crack the Flyers' group of forwards, which should have Jordan Weal and Valtteri Filppula for a full season.
 
Also, don't forget forward Mike Vecchione, a Hobey Baker finalist who signed with the Flyers out of Union College in late March.
 
Oh, and the No. 2 pick of the draft — likely a talented center — is in the Flyers' grasp.
 
The 2017-18 season will be a telling time for the Flyers. Patience has been required, but when will it be rewarded?
 
The clock is ticking.