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.

Flyers-Oilers 5 things: Winning streak meets Connor McDavid

Flyers-Oilers 5 things: Winning streak meets Connor McDavid

Flyers (15-10-3) vs. Oilers (14-10-4)
7 p.m. on CSN and CSNPhilly.com, Pregame Live at 6:30

The hottest team in the NHL will meet the hottest young star on Thursday night when the Flyers host the Edmonton Oilers at the Wells Fargo Center.

Here are five things you need to know for the matchup:

1. McDavid and Co.
The Flyers are going for their seventh consecutive victory, which would tie their longest winning streak since Dec. 2-15, 2011, when they also won seven in a row.

In order to do so, they’ll have to slow down transcendent talent Connor McDavid and the prolific but streaky Oilers.

McDavid, a generational player, has thus far lived up to all the hype surrounding him as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 draft. In just his second NHL season — and first with a healthy start after an injured-shortened rookie year (45 games) — the 19-year-old leads all of hockey in points with 36, while no other player has yet to eclipse 30.

His 25 assists also rank atop the NHL, while his 11 goals are among the top 22 and his plus-8 rating is tied for ninth best between all centers.

“He’s one of the best players in the world,” Pierre-Edouard Bellemare said Wednesday. “It’s tough not to be excited when playing against a guy who plays like this. He competes every second he is on the ice.”

And he has help.

Linemates Leon Draisaitl (11 goals, 11 assists) and Milan Lucic (eight goals, 12 assists) can do damage, as can Jordan Eberle (eight goals, 13 assists).

2. Defense wins games
The Flyers are playing better and cleaner in front of their goaltender — who has been great (see below) — and the results are showing.

The orange and black have gone five straight games of allowing two or fewer goals.

Why were they so up and down before this run? Well, they had surrendered two or fewer goals in just five of their previous 23 games.

“That’s unbelievable for us,” Wayne Simmonds said after Tuesday’s 3-2 win over the Panthers. “At the beginning of the year, to say we’d have five straight without giving up more than two would be a stretch.

“We’ve locked it down defensively and Mase has played unbelievable. We’ve been pretty good as five-man units.”

3. Mase the man
A confident Steve Mason is a dangerous Steve Mason.

Right now, Mason has the net and is gaining steam by the game.

Over his past five outings, the 28-year-old is 5-0-0 with a 1.74 goals-against average and .947 save percentage.

Just as impressive, since Nov. 12, Mason is 8-3-1 with a 2.11 goals-against average and .930 save percentage.

“I've said it numerous times, I want to be playing lots of hockey,” Mason said Tuesday. “This is a position that I'm used to being in and where I'm most comfortable. So just have to keep continuing to put my work in and whenever [head coach Dave Hakstol] calls my name, be ready."

4. Keep an eye on ...
Flyers: You always have to watch Simmonds, but especially now with the winger coming off back-to-back two-goal games. Simmonds leads the NHL with eight power-play goals and is second in man-advantage points (13) to only teammate Claude Giroux (14).

Oilers: With all the attention zeroed in on McDavid, we’ll go with the 21-year-old Draisaitl, who has seven goals in his last nine games and 14 points in his past 12. The No. 3 overall pick in 2014 is an intelligent playmaker capable of hurting you.

5. This and that
• Mason is 8-4-0 with just a 3.49 goals-against average and .872 save percentage in 13 career games against Edmonton.

• Oilers goalie Jonas Gustavsson will make his fourth start of the season. He’s 1-1-1 on the year with 84 saves on 91 shots faced, but is 0-4-1 lifetime against the Flyers with a 3.57 goals-against average and .865 save percentage.

• The Flyers are fourth in the NHL in goals per game (3.11), while Edmonton is seventh (2.93).

• The Oilers have lost 10 of their last 15 games (5-7-3).

Flyers skate update: Wayne Simmonds, power play key to beating Oilers

Flyers skate update: Wayne Simmonds, power play key to beating Oilers

Todd McLellan saw a lot of Flyers defenseman Ivan Provorov as a junior player in the Western Hockey League whenever the Brandon Wheat Kings would turn up in Edmonton.

“I watched him play in junior and had a chance to see that Brandon team play in Edmonton twice last year,” said the Edmonton Oilers coach.

“Obviously, a smooth, confident [player] with great vision. He has patience with the puck. Those are his offensive assets. 

“But he also positions himself well, defensively. He accepts that responsibility. For a young d-man, he is ahead of a lot of others because he can play on both sides of the puck.”

Provorov rattled Jaromir Jagr Tuesday when Florida was here (see story). Tonight he gets his first NHL taste of Connor McDavid.

McLellan said the Oilers' biggest challenge against the Flyers will be stopping the NHL’s second-ranked power play. Edmonton has the 11th best penalty kill.

His concern is Wayne Simmonds (8 power play goals) and Claude Giroux (14 power play points). 

“That power play is deadly and it really hasn’t changed — it’s just clicking,” McLellan said. “It has a couple trigger points. Obviously, Simmonds has the most goals in the league  and Giroux has the most points. But there’s other pieces to that power play, which are exceptional. 

“Our penalty kill has been taking it on the chin and I had to ask our guys today, 'Is it the penalty kill or the penalties?' In my opinion, it’s as much the penalties as the penalty kill. We have to stay out of the box.  

“This is a confident Flyers team. They feel very good in the offensive zone and make things happen. Their goaltender [Steve Mason] has been making saves for them that keeps them confident going the other way. It’s a team on the rise.”

The Streak
The Flyers are looking to make it seven straight wins tonight against the Oilers. The last time they won seven in arrow was Dec. 2-15 in 2011. They did not have a morning skate.

On Mason
Tuesday’s win against Florida was Steve Mason’s 88th as a Flyer, moving him past Pelle Lindbergh into sixth in franchise history. Mason needs six wins to move into third place in franchise history. 

Debut
Defenseman Dillon Simpson will make his Oilers debut tonight in Philadelphia. He is the son of former Oiler Craig Simpson. 

The oddity? Last year, Keegan Lowe made his Oilers' debut here in Philadelphia. He is the son of Kevin Lowe, longtime coach and front office executive for the Oilers. 

Colors
The Oilers wear three colors during their morning skate. Their defensemen dress in orange; their third and fourth lines dress in white and their top six skaters dress in blue. Now that’s an NHL hierarchy.