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.

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.