Ten (or 11) can't-miss Flyers home dates this year

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Ten (or 11) can't-miss Flyers home dates this year

Oh, Western Conference, where art thou? After laboring through last season’s 48-game schedule that featured only Eastern Conference opponents, hockey fans can be excited and re-engaged in a season with a schedule that finally features every team playing in every NHL city, an element that has been missing since the previous lockout of 2004-05.

Which games at the Wells Fargo Center are worth circling on your calendar? Here’s my take:

10. Flyers vs. Blue Jackets, Thurs., Dec. 19 
This matchup may have been slightly higher on my list if Ilya Bryzgalov were still a member of the Flyers, but regardless, Sergei Bobrovsky steps foot in Philadelphia for the first time since he was shipped to Columbus for a string of draft picks. In his first season in Columbus, Bob not only out-dueled Steve Mason (now with the Flyers) for the starting job, but he outplayed everyone else in the league to win the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goaltender. Barring injury, it will be intriguing to see how a Mason-Bobrovsky matchup will play out.

9. Flyers vs. Wild, Mon., Dec. 23
The final game before the Christmas break will allow Flyers fans to see Minnesota’s $196 million free-agent heist from 2012 when the Wild landed the two hottest UFAs on the market in Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, who will also be prominent players for Team USA at the Sochi Olympics a few months later. You can attribute some of the Flyers' failures from last season to Paul Holmgren’s endless pursuit of these two marquee players, who didn’t really seem to have much interest in coming to Philadelphia, and after this game, they still might not. It’s also the Flyers' last home game for 18 days.

8. Flyers vs. Predators, Thurs., Jan. 16 
It was the seven most tense, and perhaps intense, days of the Flyers' 2012 summer. The Flyers had signed Nashville defenseman Shea Weber to  a 14-year, $110-million offer sheet (the largest in league history) and then had to desperately wait a week before the Predators organization matched the offer. Weber hasn’t stepped foot in Philly since touring the Flyers' facilities back in July 2012. Nashville also brings one of the league’s top goaltenders in Pekka Rinne, and perhaps we’ll see future superstar defenseman Seth Jones as well.
 
7. Flyers vs. Penguins, Sat., March 15
The two cross-state rivals will square off five times in 2013-14, and this game will mark the final one at the Wells Fargo Center. The orange and black crowd always seems revved up for a Saturday matinee and it appears as if the two teams always feed off that emotion. Plus, these two squads may be ready to hang each other by their shoelaces as this will the second game of a home-and-home on back-to-back nights.
 
6. Flyers vs. Lightning, Sat., Jan. 11 
Even though Vincent Lecavalier will have already made his return to Tampa with the Flyers by this time, there shouldn’t be any lack of motivation for him to face the Lightning in front of his new home crowd and a nationally-televised audience on this Saturday afternoon. With the new divisional format, this will also be Tampa Bay’s only visit to the Wells Fargo Center when in previous years they had typically played twice here. Aside from “le Lecavalier connection,” you can’t help but isolate your eyes on the one-on-one battles between Claude Giroux and Steven Stamkos, two of the game’s superstars.

5. Flyers vs. Red Wings, Tue., Jan. 28 
This matchup will have considerably more meaning now that Detroit has shifted to the Eastern Conference. It’s also a chance to see the two-way wizardry of Pavel Datsyuk, who’s always worth the price of admission. The Flyers and Wings will have faced each other twice in Detroit leading up to this game, significant because the Red Wings still haven’t won in Philadelphia since sweeping the Flyers in the 1997 Stanley Cup Final -- a streak that has seen the Flyers win seven in a row.
 
4. Flyers vs. Kings, Mon., March 24 
“Flyers West” comes East to Philadelphia for the first time since Oct. 15, 2011. As we know, these two teams have more connections than a flight from Scranton to Tokyo. Now, there’s a few more following the Flyers' addition of Ron Hextall to the front office and the Kings' acquisition of Dan Carcillo this offseason. The addition of “Car Bomb” will only add gasoline to this game's flame. Former Flyer Jeff Carter still hasn’t played at the Wells Fargo Center since his offseason trade to Columbus in 2011. Jonathan Quick, the 2012 Conn Smythe trophy winner, is expected to be the starting goalie for Team USA.

3. Flyers vs. Rangers, Sat., March 1 
Broadway vs. Broad Street, Part II. The Rangers will have already played the Flyers at the WFC in October, but I think this Saturday 1 p.m. tilt will have a little more zest to it as we approach the stretch run toward the playoffs. The Blueshirts have owned the Flyers over the past three seasons, but perhaps the tide starts to shift the Flyers' way again. Fans will be itching for Flyers hockey, and this game marks the second one coming out of the Olympic break. By this time, the Rangers should be adjusted to new coach Alain Vigneault and his more offensive-minded system.

2. Flyers vs. Maple Leafs, Wed., Oct. 2 
Opening night. There’s always a tremendous amount of anticipation that comes into a new season as Toronto comes to Philadelphia in the opener. How will the defense look with the addition of Mark Streit? How will Peter Laviolette utilize his lines with Lecavalier in the mix? Who will start in net? Many questions surround a Flyers team that will be anxiously looking to prove that missing the postseason last year was a fluke. The Leafs have also upgraded their roster with the additions of Jonathan Bernier and David Clarkson.
 
1. (Tie) Flyers vs. Blackhawks, Tues., March 18 
The defending Stanley Cup champions come to the Wells Fargo Center for their only visit. Will the Flyers be able to keep up with Chicago’s speed and aggressive forecheck that carried them to their second Stanley Cup championship in four years? It’s a tremendous measuring stick for a Flyers team looking to re-establish themselves as one of the league’s elite. The last time the Flyers beat the Blackhawks in Philly, Ray Emery was in net for Chicago. This time, he can get back at his old team.

Flyers vs. Penguins, Thurs., Oct. 17 
Does anything top seeing the Flyers' most-hated rival for the first time just eight games into the young season? Pittsburgh comes to Philadelphia just twice (the other game is No. 7 on this list), but this could set an early tone to the season. The Flyers opened last season against the Pens, a 2-1 Pittsburgh victory, but aside from that game, the Flyers seem to be in Marc-Andre Fleury’s head and could have a distinct advantage in goaltending.

Best of NHL: Nikita Kucherov hat trick lifts Lightning over Bruins

Best of NHL: Nikita Kucherov hat trick lifts Lightning over Bruins

BOSTON -- Nikita Kucherov had his third career hat trick to lead Tampa Bay to a 6-3 victory over the Boston Bruins on Thursday night, snapping the Lightning's three-game losing streak.

Jonathan Drouin had a goal and two assists, Brayden Point had a goal and an assist and Anton Stralman also scored to help the Lightning pull three points behind the Bruins for the second wild card in the Eastern Conference.

Peter Budaj finished with 28 saves for the Lightning to earn his 29th win of the season. Ondrej Palat had three assists, and Jake Dotchin and Victor Hedman added two each.

Riley Nashy had a goal and an assist for Boston, and David Pastrnak and Zdeno Chara also scored. Tuukka Rask stopped 23 shots as Boston, which won seven of the first eight games under interim coach Bruce Cassidy, has now lost four straight and six of 11 (see full recap).

Oshie beats Bobrovsky to give Caps SO win
WASHINGTON -- T.J. Oshie scored the shootout winner as the Washington Capitals overcame a stellar performance from Columbus goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky to beat the Blue Jackets 2-1 Thursday night.

Despite 44 saves from Bobrovsky, the Capitals reached 104 points and extended their lead atop the Metropolitan Division and NHL standings. Oshie engendered memories of his Sochi Olympic shootout performance by again beating Bobrovsky, the goalie he scored on four times in six chances that day.

Dmitry Orlov finally cracked Bobrovsky early in the third period on Washington's 35th shot of the game. Orlov's goal tied the score after Seth Jones beat Braden Holtby on a wild scramble early in the third for his first goal since Feb. 7.

Holtby had 29 saves in regulation and overtime and three more in the shootout to pick up his 38th victory of the season, one shy of Bobrovsky for the league lead (see full recap).

Senators take down Penguins in shootout
OTTAWA, Ontario -- Kyle Turris and Bobby Ryan scored in the shootout to lift the Ottawa Senators to a 2-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday night.

Mike Hoffman scored in regulation for the Senators and Mike Condon finished with 34 saves, including two incredible point-blank stops in overtime to keep the game going.

Nick Bonino had the goal in regulation for the Penguins and Matt Murray stopped 29 shots.

After being outplayed for much of the first two periods, the Senators were much better in the third and tied the score 1-1 on the power play at 9:43 as Hoffman beat Murray over the shoulder with a wrist shot just 14 seconds after Matt Cullen was penalized for holding (see full recap).

Flyers regroup behind Steve Mason for big win over Wild

Flyers regroup behind Steve Mason for big win over Wild

BOX SCORE

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- When Zach Parise scored for the Minnesota Wild just 2:07 into Thursday's game, the Flyers were in another difficult position on the road.

This time, they responded with the type of game they've needed on the road all season.

The Flyers scored three unanswered goals by Sean Couturier, Matt Read and Jakub Voracek to beat Minnesota, 3-1, and snap a four-game losing streak on the road (see Instant Replay).

"They're a tough team to handle in their transition," Flyers coach Dave Hakstol said of Parise's goal. "It's quick and it's fast. The players on the bench were outstanding, talking, real calm. Just go out and push it the other way the next shift and I thought we were able to do that."

The Flyers responded with one of their best efforts on the road in nearly two months and pulled within six points of Boston for the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference (see standings). The Bruins lost, 6-3, at home to Tampa Bay.

Steve Mason made 24 saves in goal for his 100th win with the Flyers as the team was rarely challenged thanks to an all-around performance that has been missing on the road. The Flyers entered the night tied for the second-fewest road wins in the conference this season.

"Certain things on the road, you've got to be a little more specific with your game and detailed, and I think we did a better job of that tonight," said Flyers defenseman Nick Schultz, who returned to the arena where he played 10 seasons with Minnesota. "Everybody throughout the lineup did that and that's why we got a big win."

The beginning looked all too familiar, though.

An innocent looking dump-in slid to Mason, who tried to cover the puck. The puck went off his stick and Parise quickly poked it past Mason. The Wild had four quality chances early before the Flyers took control.

"They came hard early on in the game and to be able to match that speed; that was a completely different pace of game compared to what we came from in Winnipeg," Mason said. "So, it almost took a second to get your bearings straight to get up to speed."

The Flyers weathered the early flurry by Minnesota, which is safely in playoff position in the West but is facing its own late-season issues. The Flyers killed off both Wild penalties, allowing just two shots on the penalty kill.

Couturier's 12th goal of the season was critical in tying the game with 2:01 left in the first (see feature highlight).

"Coming into the room after the period, I think it's important when you get a big goal like that," captain Claude Giroux said. "You feel like you have the momentum a little bit, so it definitely helped us a lot."

Read provided the lead in the second and the Flyers, who are now 15-2-2 when leading after two periods, pressured in the third. They outshot the Wild, 9-4, in the final period.

"We didn't sit back," Hakstol said. "I thought we were confident with the puck and made some plays and spent a good amount of time in the offensive zone. We played with real confidence in our game."

Mason had been critical after the Flyers lost in Winnipeg on Tuesday, saying the team needed to be more desperate. The Flyers responded Thursday in the difficult position of being on the road and allowing the first goal.

"We knew we had to be better," Schultz said of Mason's comments. "I think on the road, you've got to be at least a .500 team and take care of business at home, and we haven't done that this year. So, obviously, we've got to get better and I think we did respond tonight. Now we have to build on it."