Why watch: Senators-Penguins conference semifinals

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Why watch: Senators-Penguins conference semifinals

We're a good four months away from seeing any professional hockey in Philadelphia, but this year's NHL playoffs continue to roll on.

The Eastern Conference semifinal series kicks off tonight at 7:30 p.m., with the Ottawa Senators traveling to Pittsburgh to face off against the Penguins. Looking for an excuse to watch? Below, the nuts and bolts of what you need to know to enjoy this Flyers-less playoff series.

Let's play catch-up
It took the Penguins six games – and a lot more effort – to eliminate the New York Islanders in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals than anyone expected. And Pens starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury had a fair amount of trouble, looking a lot like he did last spring against the Flyers. Fleury was eventually ousted in favor of backup Tomas Vokoun, who was in net for Games 5 and 6.  

By contrast, the Sens capitalized on goalie issues in their opening-round series against the Montreal Canadiens, in which Habs goalie Carey Price was injured and had to be replaced with backup Peter Budaj. Ottawa's goaltender, Craig Anderson, arguably kept them in the series, too. Though it took only five games for the seventh-ranked Sens to knock off the No. 2-seeded Canadiens, they were far from adept at starting games, putting the pressure on Anderson (who allowed only two first-period goals on 66 opening-stanza shots).

Storylines
The matchup might not have the cache of, say, a Flyers-Pens series or a Boston-Montreal pairing, but these two teams do have some history. They've faced each other in the playoffs three times, with the Pens emerging as victors in the two more recent meetings (2010, 2008).

Things get particularly interesting if you zero in on this year's Senators-Penguins relationship, however. First: The Penguins took all three of the games in the teams' regular-season series in 2013, outscoring the Sens 9-4 in the process. But it's the meeting between these two teams on Feb. 13 that really adds some drama to this series.

Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson, one of the best young blueliners in the league, was the victim of a scary incident in that game, in which a skate blade sliced through his left Achilles tendon, leading many to believe he'd miss the rest of the Sens' 2013 campaign. (He returned, obviously). But it was Penguins forward Matt Cooke who delivered the hit that led to Karlsson's injury, and it's safe to say neither Karlsson nor his teammates have forgotten that fact. Cooke, of course, said the play was unintentional; but that doesn't mean tensions won't be high on both sides of the red line.

Also, as it was against the Islanders, expect the Penguins to continue to avenge their 2011-12 fate of falling to the Flyers in an embarrassing fashion in the playoffs' first round. The big question for them is, then: Which goaltender will give them a better shot to compete with Anderson and the Sens? Penguins coach Dan Bylsma has so far been mum on the subject.

Players to watch


Penguins: Sidney Crosby
Sorry, Flyers fans – we know that’s probably not what you want to read right now. But Crosby was impressive during the Pens’ first-round series, netting three goals and tacking on six assists after returning from a jaw injury for Game 2. On a team all but defined by its offensive depth, Crosby continues to be one of the most exciting players to follow – but if paying attention to the Flyers’ arch rival doesn’t do it for you, keep an eye on Evgeni Malkin. The dangerous Russian leads the Pens with 11 postseason points.

Senators: Erik Karlsson
Karlsson was the recipient of last season’s Norris Trophy (awarded to the NHL’s top defenseman). He was arguably on pace for another impressive season when he suffered that aforementioned 70-percent tear of his left Achilles tendon, causing him to miss 31 games. But Karlsson, who returned just before the regular season came to an end, hasn’t lost a step. He was the best Senator on the ice through the team’s five-game series with the Canadiens.

(Consider keeping an eye on Jason Spezza, too. The Sens’ center practiced this weekend for the first time since he underwent back surgery in February. While there’s no guarantee he’ll make an appearance in the series, he changes the Sens’ landscape entirely if he does.)

Prediction
As mentioned, Pittsburgh swept the Senators this season, outscoring them 9-4 in the process. But the Pens had some trouble containing the Islanders’ young, quick forwards, and similar issues could plague them against Ottawa (especially if Spezza returns to the lineup during the series). That said, as long as the Penguins are motivated – instead of exhausted – by their emotional first-round series, this matchup is theirs for the taking. Penguins in six.

Wayne Simmonds stars as Flyers top Predators, push win streak to 5 games

Wayne Simmonds stars as Flyers top Predators, push win streak to 5 games

BOX SCORE

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Dave Hakstol likes Wayne Simmonds’ net-front play more than that of any player in the league.

The Flyers' power forward showed on Sunday why his coach thinks that way.

Simmonds’ two power-play goals in front of the crease helped extend the Flyers’ win streak to five, their longest of the season, in a 4-2 win over the Nashville Predators on Sunday night (see Instant Replay).

“If there’s a better guy in the league at net front, whether it’s on power play or 5 on 5, I don’t know who that is,” said Hakstol said after Sunday's victory. “He did a great job there tonight.”

Simmonds’ first goal came when he deflected Jake Voracek’s shot past Juuse Saros, giving the Flyers a 1-0 lead at 18:12 of the first period.

“They had great movement around the top of the box and Jake told me to go back door if he was going to get it for a one-timer,” Simmonds said. “So I stuck my stick out back door and he hit it, and it went in the net.”

Then Simmonds batted a puck through Saros' legs for a 2-1 advantage at 6:47 of the second period for his team-leading 13th goal of the season.

“It was kind of a little bit of a cluster and the puck comes to me, and I’m alone in front of the net so I just put it five-hole and it worked,” Simmonds said.

The right wing’s father was watching in the sellout crowd of 17,113 at Bridgestone Arena during the Flyers' annual father-son trip.

“It was nice, obviously,” Simmonds said. “I just went outside and saw him. He didn’t really say much to me, but I know he’s glowing on the inside.”

Simmonds has now scored 10 career goals in 20 games against Nashville.

“What I really like about Simmer is he’s at net-front, he’s scoring goals, he’s on the power play, but he’s a great, hard-nosed, 200-foot player,” Hakstol said.

Simmonds’ goals gave the Flyers an early spark on Sunday.

“It was huge,” said Flyers left wing Michael Raffl, who scored the winning goal at 16:37 of the second period when made a power move on a rush and tucked the puck past Saros. “That gives us all the momentum.”

The Flyers improved to 7-3-1 in their last 11 games.

“We’re just trying to take care of pucks and maintain the pressure that we have,” Simmonds said. “The next shift up every game is the most important shift and that’s how we’re trying to play it here.”

Predators coach Peter Laviolette, a former Flyers coach, wasn’t surprised by his former team’s power-play success. The Flyers entered the game tied for the third best power play in the league cashed in twice on seven chances on Sunday.

“We knew going in that their power play was really good,” Laviolette said. “Their players have a lot of time together and cohesiveness and they’re pretty set in what they do. They bring pucks to the net and when they do that, things can happen. That was a difference in the game tonight.”

Winning goalie Steve Mason has started 10 of the last 11 games. He made 30 saves Sunday to improve his record to 8-8-3.

“This is the situation I want to be in, so it’s a workload that all summer you prepare for even when I was not getting the work load I wanted,” Mason said. “You prepare for it and now that it’s here I’m making the most of it.”

Instant Replay: Flyers 4, Predators 2

Instant Replay: Flyers 4, Predators 2

BOX SCORE

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Wayne Simmonds scored two power-play goals and the Flyers won their fifth straight, extending their longest win streak of the season with a 4-2 win over the Nashville Predators on Sunday night at Bridgestone Arena.

Michael Raffl and Chris VandeVelde also scored for the Flyers (14-10-3), who have four straight wins over Nashville (11-9-4).

Calle Jarnkrok and Colin Wison scored for the Predators.

Simmonds’ first power-play goal gave the Flyers a 1-0 lead in the first period.

Nashville tied the game at 1-1 when Jarnkrok redirected Mattias Ekholm’s shot at 3:17 of the second period.

Simmonds struck again on the power play just over three minutes later when he batted a puck through Juuse Saros' legs for a 2-1 lead. Simmonds leads the Flyers with 13 goals on the year.

Wilson’s backhander tied it at 2-2 when he took a nice pass from Mike Fisher before beating Steve Mason blocker side at 11:19 of the second period.
    
Michael Raffl gave the Flyers a 3-2 lead on a 2-on-1 rush at of the second period. Raffl sped past a Nashville defender and used a power move at the front of the net before sliding the puck past Saros for game's deciding tally.

VandeVelde added an empty netter with 26.3 seconds left.
 
Moving up

Claude Gioux’s second-period assist moved him past Rod Brind-Amour into sixth in Flyers history with 367 helpers.

Giroux played in last year’s All-Star Game in Nashville.

Milestone
Flyers defenseman Brandon Manning played in his 100th career game.

Back and forth
The Flyers took three one-goal leads during the first two periods and the Predators tied the score twice before the visitors took a 3-2 lead into the final 20 minutes.

Double trouble
Simmonds tied his season high with two goals in a game. His first two-goal game came in a 6-3 loss at Toronto on Nov. 11.

The Flyers' winger has 10 goals in 20 career games against Nashville.

Back to backs
The Flyers improved to 5-1-1 on the back end of back-to-back games. The Flyers beat Chicago, 3-1, on Saturday afternoon in Philadelphia.

Goalie report
Mason improved to 9-8-3 after making 26 saves. He withstood a late push by Nashville.

Power play
The Flyers' power play went 2 for 7 with two goals by Simmonds.

The Flyers got a four-minute power play when Filip Forsberg was called for high sticking Nick Cousins at 3:12 of the third period, but couldn’t capitalize. That brought a roar from the sellout crowd of 17,113.

Penalty kill
The penalty kill went a perfect 3 for 3. The Flyers got some puck luck when Filip Forsberg’s wrist shot from the right faceoff circle bounced off the right post while Simmonds was in the box for tripping midway through the first period.
 
Scratches
Flyers defenseman Radko Gudas (sick), left wing Scott Laughton (healthy) and defenseman Nick Schultz (healthy) were scratched.

Up next
The Flyers host Florida on Tuesday to start a three-game homestand. Edmonton visits the Wells Fargo Center on Thursday and Dallas visits on Saturday afternoon.