Tonight's game in New York against rival Rangers a must-win for Flyers

Tonight's game in New York against rival Rangers a must-win for Flyers

Don’t touch the Philadelphia Flyers, because they’ve been on fire.

It’s no secret around town and, more importantly, around the NHL how well the Flyers have been playing in recent weeks. As a matter of fact, to say they are playing well could be an understatement.

Since March 1, the Flyers have posted an impressive 8-2-1 record and have been the hottest team in the league this side of the Boston Bruins, who just had a 12-game winning streak snapped this past Monday.

You don’t have to look back too far to notice the Flyers have won five of their last six games, all against some of the NHL’s best in the Pittsburgh Penguins (twice), Chicago Blackhawks, Dallas Stars and St. Louis Blues. The only blemish in that stretch was this past Monday’s hard-fought, 3-2 loss to the Los Angeles Kings that the Flyers should feel no shame about.

Their torrid run throughout this month has put the Flyers in prime playoff positioning in the Metropolitan Division and given them some cushion in the Eastern Conference wild-card race in case they do fall off a bit down the stretch.

But crumple all those joyful, good feelings about the hometown team into one big paper ball and throw it in the trashcan because the Flyers’ game tonight in Manhattan against the New York Rangers is a must-win game.

Say what?  A must-win for a team that comes in on that kind of a roll?

Yep. You read that right.

Not only is it a must-win, it very well may be the Flyers’ biggest game of the season.

If the season ended before Wednesday night’s games, the Flyers and Rangers would meet in the first round of the playoffs with the Rangers having home ice since they currently have a one-point advantage over the Flyers for second place in the Metropolitan.

As the season winds down, the odds of a first-round matchup between the two longtime rivals grows increasingly likely by the day. Don’t discount the upstart Columbus Blue Jackets or the desperate Washington Capitals, both of whom sit three points behind the Flyers in the Metropolitan, from throwing a wrench into those plans, but a Flyers-Rangers opening-round series looks like a distinct possibility.

The teams haven’t met in the Stanley Cup Playoffs since the 1997 Eastern Conference Final, which the Flyers won four games to one.

It sounds like an enticing matchup until you realize the Flyers have lost seven straight games at Madison Square Garden and haven’t won there since Feb. 20, 2011. For those not well-inclined in the field of mathematics, that’s a stretch of over three years.

To make things worse, many of the games haven’t been close. The Flyers have been outscored 28-8 during their seven-game losing streak at the World’s Most Famous Arena and only one of those games was decided by less than two goals.

Tonight’s game in The Garden is must-win for the Flyers’ psyche. They don’t want to go into a playoff series knowing they haven’t won in the opponent’s building in over three years, especially a hated rival’s building.

The Stanley Cup Playoffs are tough enough. The last thing the Flyers will need is a mental obstacle to hurdle and something to have to constantly answer questions about.

Tonight’s game is one the Flyers need to get under their collective belt and get out of the way now. If for nothing else, they need it to erase any lingering doubts they may have about winning in New York.

As for something a bit more tangible, this is a huge game in the race for home-ice advantage.

Your browser does not support iframes.

As mentioned above, the Rangers would currently have the home ice but they only lead the Flyers by a point in the standings. The Flyers obviously want that home-ice advantage in the playoffs so what better way to get it than to snatch it with a win against the team directly ahead of them?

A regulation win tonight would put the Flyers one point ahead of the Rangers with two games in hand. That would be one point ahead and two extra games to lock up that home-ice advantage for the first round.

So, needless to say, tonight’s game may very well be the biggest of the season for the Flyers.

They’ll catch a bit of a break as winger Chris Krieder, who is tied for third on the Rangers with 17 goals and plays on their top line with fellow winger Rick Nash and center Derek Stepan, will miss the game with a hand injury.

Known Flyers tormentor Henrik Lundqvist will start between the pipes for the Rangers. In 44 career games against the Flyers, Lundqvist has a 26-13-3 record along with a 2.53 goals-against average and a .915 save percentage. But the Flyers did get four past him in a 4-2 win when the teams last met on March 1 in South Philly.

After getting the night off this past Monday, Steve Mason returns to the net tonight for the Flyers. No surprise there with what is riding on this game.

Philadelphia holds a 2-1 lead in the season series but, as you may have been able to decipher earlier in this article, both wins came at Wells Fargo Center.

That’s cool and all but now’s the time for the Flyers to get that MSG monkey off their backs, especially since some more important visits to The Garden could be looming on the horizon.

Flyers-Penguins 5 things: Different teams meet outdoors at Heinz Field

Flyers-Penguins 5 things: Different teams meet outdoors at Heinz Field

Flyers (28-25-7) at Penguins (37-14-8)
8 p.m. on NBC, CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports App

It’s time for some outdoor fun.

The anticipated Flyers-Penguins Stadium Series game has arrived, as the two rivals clash Saturday night at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.

Let’s get you ready for it all with five things to know.

1. Eye on the ice
The one caveat of playing ice hockey outdoors is, of course, the weather.

The forecast is calling for rain showers from morning until noon with temperatures in the low-to-mid 50s. The precipitation is expected to taper off and temperatures are expected to dip into the high-30s for puck drop.

The ice can still be playable with some rain. Both teams are expected to have their morning skates indoors. No matter what, the game ice will certainly be a bit different than playing in a concealed arena.

“I'm sure they will do the best they can to have it ready,” Michael Del Zotto said this week (see story). “Unless it is really cold, the ice is always going to be chippy playing outdoors.

“It doesn’t matter what the ice conditions are because both teams are playing with it. It’s not an advantage or disadvantage for either team. Both have to deal with it.”

Ultimately, players are ready for anything weather-wise -- with the wind being just as big of a concern as the ice (see story).

2. Two directions
The Flyers and Penguins are in contrasting spots.

Pittsburgh is built for another Cup run.

The Flyers are not yet. Instead, they are fighting simply for their postseason lives.

The orange and black have lost seven of their last 10 games. Since the 10-game winning streak, they are 9-15-4 with the NHL’s second-fewest points at 22.

When the Flyers won 10 straight, they had a plus-14 goal differential over that span. In the 28 games since, they have scored an NHL-low 48 markers and own a minus-36 goal differential.

So, like last season, the Flyers have a mighty mountain to climb for a playoff berth (see story). They are now five points back of the Islanders, who currently hold the second wild-card spot with 68 points. The Flyers, at 63 points, also trail the Bruins (68) and Panthers (66), while the Sabres (62) and Lighting (62) are right there in the mix.

Meanwhile, the defending champion Penguins are third in the NHL with 82 points and first with 3.47 goals per game, spearheaded by Sidney Crosby’s league-best 33 scores.

3. Keep an eye on …
Flyers: Brayden Schenn is on a three-game goal streak and ranks No. 1 in hockey with 14 man-advantage tallies. Since Jan. 8, he is tied with Wayne Simmonds for the Flyers’ lead in goals at eight. He also owns eight goals and eight assists in 23 career games against Pittsburgh.

Penguins: Right winger Patric Hornqvist, who plays alongside Crosby, was super active in the first meeting with the Flyers, recording two assists, five shots on goal, three hits and three blocked shots. The 30-year-old has 17 goals, 18 assists and a plus-19 rating, while the Penguins are 12-3-0 when he scores a goal.

4. This and that
• Flyers goalie Michal Neuvirth is making his sixth straight start and ninth in the last 10 games. He is 2-2-2 with a 2.23 goals-against average, .921 save percentage and two shutouts in seven lifetime matchups with Pittsburgh.

• Penguins goalie Matt Murray is 5-1-2 in his last eight games with a .940 save percentage and 1.84 goals-against average. In two career games (one start) against the Flyers, the 22-year-old is 1-0-0 and has stopped 39 of 41 shots faced.

• Pittsburgh has won four of the last five meetings with the Flyers. This is Game 2 of the four-game regular-season series between the teams. The Penguins won the first matchup, 5-4, on Oct. 29 at the Wells Fargo Center.

• Penguins defensemen Justin Schultz (upper body) and Kris Letang (upper body) will be game-time decisions. Schultz is a team-best plus-31 on the season, while Letang is a two-time All-Star.

• Jakub Voracek has 32 points (15 goals, 17 assists) in 29 career games against Pittsburgh.

5. The rivalry
Relive some great moments from the Flyers-Penguins rivalry with these terrific pieces from CSN’s Orange Line.

Danny Briere recalls brawl in Pittsburgh

The origin of Philly’s hatred for Crosby

Reliving Flyers’ five-overtime playoff win

Mario Lemieux returns to form in first game back

Top Flyers-Penguins moments

Another wild-card run? Flyers need it to start outdoors

Another wild-card run? Flyers need it to start outdoors

PITTSBURGH -- At this point, the Flyers are sick of talking about Saturday night's Stadium Series outdoor game against the Penguins at Heinz Field.

They just want to get it on and get it over with. Too much buildup.

“Yeah, kind of,” Simmonds said Friday. “For us, this is an extremely important game. We’ve got to get all the points we can possibly get going down the stretch if we want to make the playoffs.

“Obviously, it’s going to be an exciting time. A lot of guys have families here. But we have to stay focused on the goal.”

To say the Flyers need points right now is a huge understatement. They are five points behind the New York Islanders for the Eastern Conference's final wild-card spot.

That’s the farthest they have been behind since occupying the wild card on Dec. 4. When the Flyers won their 10th consecutive game Dec. 14, they were 14 points ahead of the Islanders.

That’s a 19-point swing in the standings since then.

“So, we just have to find a way to get two points and get some wins in a row here,” Jakub Voracek said. “Every game against Pittsburgh is special. Playing an outdoor game -- I don't know how many people are going to be here -- but it's going to be a great experience.

“For us, every game is a huge game. So, if you play Pittsburgh or Colorado, it doesn't matter. You have to get two points.”

Flyers general manager Ron Hextall said Friday night he believes his team can still make a playoff run and salvage a wild card.

The thing is, when the Flyers made their second-half push last season, it actually began in mid-February -- earlier than now.

A couple players got hot, as did Michal Neuvirth and then Steve Mason, and you could see momentum building in the team over weeks.

That hasn’t been the case here. It’s almost March and the Flyers are floundering, no one is scoring and they are losing games despite playing pretty good hockey with no answer on how to turn things around without a major scoring increase across the board.

“It's a different season,” Voracek said of the comparison. “Different teams. You could use it as an advantage. … We have to play our hockey. The last two games, we went 1-1, but we played pretty good. We have to be ready [Saturday].”

Hextall said what happens this weekend and Tuesday against Colorado will have a trickle-down effect on what he does Wednesday at the NHL trade deadline (see story).

“We’ve played well enough at times this year that we can mount a run,” Hextall said. “I have no doubt in my mind. We’ve been playing pretty good the last eight, nine games. Except for the Edmonton game.

“But we haven’t gotten results. We need to get results. It’s not about moral victories or playing good against Washington. That’s fine and dandy, but not good enough. We have to win games.”

It starts tonight.