Flyers-Penguins: 5 things you need to know

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Flyers-Penguins: 5 things you need to know

It should be a fun weekend for hockey in Pennsylvania.

The Flyers (33-25-7) open up a weekend home-and-home series with the Pittsburgh Penguins (44-17-4) Saturday afternoon.

Puck drop is set for 1 p.m. (CSN) at the Wells Fargo Center.

Let’s take a closer look at the matchup:

1. Home-ice advantage?
This will be the third of five meetings between these bitter in-state rivals this season. The Flyers and Penguins have split their previous two matchups, each winning on the road.

In fact, the road team has been much more dominant in this series over the past couple years. The Penguins have gone 9-4-2 in the regular season at the Wells Fargo Center since 2008-09. Meanwhile, the Flyers own a 7-1-1 record since CONSOL Energy Center opened in 2010.

What gives?

“Sometimes at home, our emotions get to us a little bit and we put ourselves in tough spots,” Flyers head coach Craig Berube said Friday (see story). “You've got to control your emotions at home. It’s a big rivalry game. It gets pretty heated against those guys, and maybe at home, we let our emotions get to us.”

Saturday marks the start of a tough stretch for the Flyers, who sit in fourth place -- 19 points behind the first-place Penguins -- in the Metropolitan Division. Their next 12 games will be against opponents currently holding playoff slots in their respective conferences. It truly is clutch time for the Orange and Black.

2. The Penguin killers
If the Flyers want to have success against Pittsburgh, they’ll need their top two offensive threats to continue to lead the way.

Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek have been the team’s best forwards over the past few weeks and always seem to bring their “A” game when opposing the Pens.

Prior to being held scoreless in the Flyers’ 2-1 win over Pittsburgh on Nov. 13, Giroux had eight goals and 12 assists during a 10-game point streak vs. the Penguins -- including playoffs.

As for Voracek, the 24-year-old forward has collected eight goals and eight assists in 17 career games against Pittsburgh.

The Penguins have done a stellar job stymieing Giroux and Voracek this season, however. The duo have just an assist each in the first two meetings between the clubs.

3. The Flyer killers
We all know where this is going. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have caused a lot of headaches for the Flyers over the past few seasons.

Crosby’s 30 career regular-season goals against the Flyers are his most against any team and he’s found the back of the net in three straight in this series. Say what you want about the Penguins’ captain, but he’s always on the top of his game when he plays the Flyers.

To make matters worse, Crosby is having an MVP-worthy season. He’s well on his way to a scoring title -- he leads the NHL with 88 points -- and has been able to stay healthy, which is a major reason the Penguins sit comfortably in first place in the Metro.

And then there’s Malkin. He has 22 goals and 58 points in 41 career games against the Flyers and will likely be guarded by shutdown center Sean Couturier this weekend. Couturier has done a superb job of frustrating Malkin, who has a tendency to take penalties when taken off his game, when given the duty of shadowing the big Russian. It’s something worth keeping an eye on.

Crosby and Malkin have had some offensive success against the Flyers this season. The Penguins’ one-two punch has combined for three goals and three assists in the first two meetings in the season series.

4. Injuries
The Flyers sent goalie Cal Heeter and forward Chris VandeVelde back to the Phantoms on Thursday, indicating Ray Emery and Zac Rinaldo are ready to return to action.

Emery has been rehabbing a groin pull and could play at some point this weekend. Rinaldo sat out the Flyers’ 2-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils with an upper-body injury.

The Penguins are a banged-up bunch. James Neal was the latest Penguin to be bit by the injury bug, as the forward suffered a concussion in Pittsburgh’s 2-0 win over the Washington Capitals on Tuesday. The team announced Friday he will be sidelined indefinitely.

Also out for the Pens are goalie Tomas Vokoun (blood clot), forwards Beau Bennett (wrist), Pascal Dupuis (knee) and Chris Conner (foot) and defensemen Kris Letang (stroke) and Paul Martin (hand).

Finally, forward Chris Kuntiz is listed as questionable for Saturday’s game with a lower-body injury.

5. This and that
• The Flyers had scored multiple goals in 11 straight prior to Tuesday’s loss to New Jersey.

• The Penguins lead the NHL in both power-play percentage (25.3 percent) and penalty-kill percentage (87.1 percent) entering Friday (see story). No team has led the league in both categories over a full season since the 1984-85 New York Islanders.

• Voracek has at least one point in four consecutive games. He’s potted three goals and assisted five more in that span.

• Marc-Andre Fleury posted his fifth shutout of the season Tuesday, which tied a career high for the netminder.

• Giroux and Crosby each have 45 points since Dec. 11, 2013.

2016-17 Flyers evaluation: Part 1 of the forwards

2016-17 Flyers evaluation: Part 1 of the forwards

We continue our series reviewing the Flyers' 2016-17 roster with the third part of a four-part series. You can find our goaltending review here and defensemen review here.

The core forward group for the Flyers -- Sean Couturier, Claude Giroux, Brayden Schenn, Wayne Simmonds and Jakub Voracek -- has been together for six seasons now.

It's sad to say, but it hasn't accomplished anything of significance during that time.

So when fans ask whether it's time to break that core up after a third non-playoff season in five years, it's a legitimate question.

And it's one that general manager Ron Hextall admits he has to think about this summer.

"Pro sports is all about proving yourself year after year," Hextall said recently. "Every one of our players has to prove themselves next year. Will it stay together? I don't know. If we'd have won a couple rounds of playoffs there's obviously a better chance of them staying together.

"Does that mean it's not going to stay together? I don't know what's going to come our way. Am I happy with the team? No. I'm not. How can you be, right? We missed the playoffs and, again, we were capable. I don't know one way or the other whether there's going to be change."

Hextall admitted he was not satisfied with the leadership group, which includes the players above, headed by Giroux, the team's captain.
 
"It's much harder to lead when you're not having a great year because you get a little bit more consumed with your own play because first and foremost you have to perform," Hextall said. "So it does take away. They do tie together.
 
"With G, yeah, there's a little bit of that that happened this year. I'm not singling him out because first and foremost he has to play well for us. He got frustrated by his level of performance. It was up and down. Our leadership can be better, for sure. Again, that's not G, that's our whole group."
 
Here is our look at the forwards (alphabetically) this past season, minus Mike Vecchione, who wasn't here long enough. We will split this up into two parts.
 
Pierre-Edouard Bellemare
Age: Turned 32 on March 6
Stats: 82 GP; 4G, 4A, 8 Pts.; minus-1; 12:58
Cap hit: $1.45 million

A tireless worker on the fourth line and penalty kill, Bellemare was rewarded with a new deal that doubles his salary for next season and was given Mark Streit's "A" when the veteran defenseman was dealt at the trade deadline. Like his teammates, there was a drop-off in offensive production. Yet what is troubling is that his effectiveness with Chris VandeVelde on the PK is gone. They routinely generated a shorthanded scoring chance every night and that wasn't the case this season. The PK -- as a group -- was horrendous. If Vecchione makes the roster in the fall, Bellemare is expected to move to left wing permanently.
 
Nick Cousins
Age: Turns 24 on June 20
Stats: 60 GP; 6G, 10A, 16 Pts.; minus-6; 12:00
Cap hit: $840,000

A feisty player with good hockey sense but average speed and hands. Cousins' enthusiasm makes him the kind of role player you can use on any line, which is exactly how coach Dave Hakstol employed him this season. What Cousins has to watch out for now is that the Flyers have quicker, more skilled forwards coming in the next two seasons. And while his ice time was up two minutes over last season, it nose-dived this year in the second half after he was averaging 15 minutes in February. He's the kind of grit player who accepts his role without complaint that Vegas might find attractive in the expansion draft.

Sean Couturier
Age: Turns 25 on Dec. 7
Stats: 66 GP; 14G, 20A, 34 Pts.; plus-12; 18:26
Cap hit: $4.33 million

It's become redundant at this point to say "Coots" should be more offensive-minded. The waiting game is over. When the Flyers drafted him in 2011, the expectation was that they were getting a bona fide 20-25 goal-per-season player who would challenge for the Selke Trophy because of his all-around defensive play. The second half of that prophecy occurred, but the first half has been put to bed. Couturier will never be an offensive centerman and the only thing the Flyers can do now is either trade him or live with it. Yet $4 million is a lot of money for a guy whose goal production is 15 -- at best. That said, his line with Dale Weise and Schenn came alive when Valtteri Filppula arrived because it created better matchups for the Flyers. Also, Couturier was the only Flyer who significantly went from being a minus to finish as a team-high plus-12.
 
Valtteri Filppula
Age: Turned 33 on March 20
Stats: 20 GP; 5G, 3A, 8 Pts.; minus-2; 17:07
Cap hit: $5.0 million

There's still some good tread left on this Finnish centerman's tires. A lot of people had a hard time understanding this move, but Hextall made a convincing argument that Filppula's presence in the middle would create better road matchups that would benefit Giroux and Couturier, and the evidence was there for the choosing in the final weeks of the season. Filppula buys time for the Flyers to get a young center out of the minors or Europe -- perhaps German Rubtsov -- with a steep one-year price but the Flyers were looking short term here and he fits the bill, even though the days of him scoring 20 goals are over. His line with Jordan Weal and Simmonds was excellent. Given his no-movement clause, Filppula has to be protected in the expansion draft.
 
Claude Giroux
Age: Turns 30 on Jan. 12
Stats: 82 GP; 14G, 44A, 58 Pts.; minus-15; 19:07
Cap hit: $8.275 million

Giroux's offseason abdominal and hip surgeries -- much like Shayne Gostisbehere -- ruined his season. He wasn't able to move the way he should. He had no burst of speed, no recovery speed. He made a calculated mistake not admitting his injury held him back until March and allowed himself to become a target of the fans' wrath when he should have been honest up front. Hextall admitted he expected better leadership from Giroux. Some point to Simmonds as the de facto captain. Yet Giroux cares deeply about this team. He was embarrassed at being a minus player this season, too. It's a legit concern that his offensive production has dropped off a cliff since 2011-12, but his salary makes it virtually impossible to trade him in a salary cap world. And there is no indication that Hextall has even considered moving him. Giroux went the entire season without a set line. In fact, Hakstol used him on eight lines. You can't have your No. 1 center playing with that many different linemates. Giroux needs to settle in with steady wingers.

Travis Konecny
Age: Turned 20 on March 11
Stats: 70 GP; 11G, 17A, 28 Pts.; minus-2; 14:05
Cap hit: $894,167

Konecny was Hakstol's personal whipping boy this season, perhaps more so than Gostisbehere. For a coach who staked his reputation on handling young players well and having genuine rapport, this was the complete opposite of what you'd expect. Hextall defended Hakstol in being tough on Konecny because it was about the larger issue of turnovers that were killing the club and skilled players such as Konecny were making too many of them. Give the kid credit. He came through without being terribly scarred and should be even more mindful of what he's doing with the puck next season. Konecny had the talent to score 15 or 20 goals this year regardless, so 11 goals represent a letdown. Yet you see the promise in the kid even if you're not quite sure where he belongs. He was on four different units in the second half of the season. Konecny took 133 shots but had 50 missed attempts. He has much better accuracy than that.
 
Roman Lyubimov
Age: Turned 25 on Jan. 6
Stats: 47 GP; 4G, 2A, 6 Pts.; minus-2; 9:34
Cap hit: RFA who earned $925,000

Whatever it was that impressed the coaching staff in training camp about this Russian import -- perhaps the fact he plays a heavy game -- it wore off quickly with Hakstol. He sat 12 straight games after late February and didn't even dress for the season finale against Carolina. He was slotted on the fourth line and that's where he played when given a chance. Despite good size, the Flyers likely feel they have a quicker, more versatile player in Vecchione, who was signed out of college in April. If the club re-signs him, Lyubimov goes to the Phantoms. If not, he likely goes back to Russia.
 
Michael Raffl
Age: Turns 29 on Dec. 1
Stats: 52 GP; 8G, 3A, 11 Pts.; minus-7; 13:15
Cap hit: $2.35 million

A bad MCL sprain to his left knee suffered against Colorado on Feb. 28 put a premature end to Raffl's season. Interestingly, he could have returned in early April but the club chose to keep him on injured reserve until season's end. What has to be answered, however, is what happened to Raffl offensively from the midpoint of the season -- Game 41 on Jan. 7 -- until he was injured. Over those next 21 games, Raffl didn't have a single point. Then his season ended. Recall, he had 21 goals three years ago in 67 games. Raffl gets a pass because he was just one of many players who had a terrible year. His gung-ho attitude and aggressive nature on the ice sets him apart from others in the dressing room. He could be exposed in the expansion draft and he's one versatile European player who can play anywhere in the lineup, so it wouldn't surprise anyone if Vegas chose him.

Our series concludes Wednesday with our second part examining the forwards.

Future Flyers Report: Shorthanded in net, Phantoms on brink of elimination, lose Alex Lyon

Future Flyers Report: Shorthanded in net, Phantoms on brink of elimination, lose Alex Lyon

The Future Flyers Report lives to see another week.

Before this week begins, it's time for our weekly check-in on the Flyers' prospects still playing in the AHL playoffs, SHL final, and the CHL playoffs. There is not much promise left for the Phantoms, while a pair of Swedish prospects find themselves tied in the SHL final. 

Alex Lyon, G, 24, 6-1/201, Lehigh Valley Phantoms (AHL)
The Phantoms are on the brink of elimination after losing Games 1 and 2 of their best-of-five series with the Hershey Bears last Friday and Saturday night, and things do not appear to get any easier for Lehigh Valley. Lyon needed to be helped off the ice with 11:22 left in the third period of Lehigh Valley's 5-4 loss to the Bears on Saturday night. Hershey forward Travis Boyd made incidental contact with the Phantoms' goalie. Lyon could not put weight on his right leg, according to Highland Park Hockey. With Lyon out for the rest of the Hershey series, Lehigh Valley's season could come to an end Wednesday night. Already down Anthony Stolarz, the Phantoms would likely turn to Martin Ouellette as their starter instead of forcing Carter Hart into an impossible situation facing elimination. Before suffering his injury, Lyon stopped 10 of 13 shots against the Bears. He was excellent in Game 1 Friday night, turning away 20 of 21 shots but the Phantoms lost, 1-0, in overtime.

Carter Hart, G, 18, 6-1/181, Everett (WHL)
As expected, Hart joined the Phantoms last week for Lehigh Valley's playoff run. He did not dress in either Game 1 or 2 against Hershey. Hart told CSN's John Boruk last Wednesday that Montreal's Carey Price and Washington's Braden Holtby are two of his favorite goalies and that he has studied both of their games. Phantoms coach Scott Gordon raved about the structure in Hart's game. "More times than not, the puck will hit him and he'll have the appropriate response after the save is made to make the next save," Gordon said.

Oskar Lindblom, LW, 20, 6-1/192, Brynäs IF (SHL)
Lindblom has had a quiet SHL final for Brynäs IF, which finds itself tied, 2-2, to HV71 after four games in its best-of-seven series. Last week, Brynäs won Game 2, 3-2, in overtime Tuesday, Game 3, 4-3, in OT on Thursday and lost, 6-4, in Game 4 on Saturday. Lindblom was pointless in all three games and was a combined minus-4 in Games 3 and 4. He did register 10 shots on goal and was credited with seven hits last week. Through four SHL final games, Lindblom has just one goal and is a minus-6. Game 5 is Monday.

Felix Sandstrom, G, 20, 6-2/187, Brynäs IF (SHL)
Sandstrom started just one game last week for Brynäs. The 20-year-old goalie stopped 14 of 16 shots in 63:19 during Brynäs' 3-2 OT win last Tuesday. He missed Game 3 on Thursday because of an illness. David Rautio got the start Thursday and Saturday. If fully recovered from his illness, Sandstrom should be back in net for Game 5 on Monday.

Connor Bunnaman, C, 19, 6-3/214, Kitchener (OHL)
The Flyers signed Bunnaman to an entry-level contract last Friday. He was the team's fourth-round pick (109 overall) in 2016. He scored 37 goals and 52 points as an 18-year-old this season with the Rangers, up from 19 goals and 38 points in 2015-16. He turned 19 on Easter. An interesting observation from CSNPhilly.com contributor Ryan Bright, Bunnaman was drafted at 6-foot-1, 207. He is now listed at 6-3, 214.

Philippe Myers, D, 20, 6-5/208, Rouyn-Noranda (QMJHL)
Myers' junior season is over. The 6-5 defenseman joined the Lehigh Valley Phantoms during their playoff run. He did not play in Games 1 or 2 over the weekend. It is unlikely he will play at all during the AHL postseason unless the Phantoms have to deal with injuries. Rouyn-Noranda lost its playoff series with Chicoutimi in five games last week. Myers had a goal and was a minus-5 in five playoff games against the Saguenéens. He had nine points and finished as a minus-2 in 13 playoff games. As a 20-year-old, he is no longer eligible for juniors. He will turn pro next season, either playing for the Flyers or the Phantoms.

Carsen Twarynski, LW, 19, 6-2/198, Kelowna (WHL)
Twarynski is the Flyers' lone CHL prospect still playing, as Kelowna is tied, 1-1, in its best-of-seven series with Seattle in the WHL Conference Finals. Twarynski was pointless in both Games 1 and 2 for the Rockets. Through 12 playoff games -- he was suspended one game -- he has three goals, two assists, a game-winning goal and 15 penalty minutes. Kelowna and Seattle face off on Tuesday night in Game 3 in Kelowna.