PHILADELPHIA — The Pittsburgh Penguins trail the Philadelphia Flyers by four points for third place in the Metro Division, and the rivals who like to admit they don’t like each other faceoff at the Wells Fargo Center Monday night.
It’s a four-point game, hence the cutesy headline.
The Penguins have one game in hand on the Flyers, so a regulation win would mean the Penguins could be in a tie for third place by winning their extra game. A loss means they’re six back.
The teams needed more than 60 minutes in each of their previous two meetings, including an overtime loss on Dec. 4 at Wells Fargo Center.
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The Penguins are finding their game. The Flyers are solidifying theirs.
In a twist that might surprise many, the Flyers are one of the best rush teams in the NHL, ranking in the top three in regards to the amount of offense generated. Penguins coach Mike Sullivan, who spent nearly a decade as an assistant beneath Flyers coach John Tortorella, knows well how the Flyers system works.
“I want to say that they’re third in the league in chances off the rush. I think they’re second in the league for odd-man rushes,” Sullivan said. “They’re a team that creates a lot of offense through the defense. And that’s one of their strengths. I know in the last two games that we played them, over 90% of the chances they generated against us in both of those games were a result of plays off the rush. So we’ve got to do a better job in control of the pucks, and we’ve got to make sure we stay above people and above the puck so that we limit those opportunities.”
The most obvious key to the game, as in most games, is puck control. Under that umbrella includes good decision-making.
The Flyers attack the puck. Turnovers or errant passes in the neutral zone or the attacking blue line quickly become odd-man chances or three-wide rushes with a trailer.
While the Penguins have played remarkably better over the last three weeks, one wonders how much of that mistake-prone game still resides within them; the internal pressure to make a pretty play or stickhandle through traffic is harmful against the Flyers.
Very quickly, a Penguins rush can become goalie Alex Nedeljkovic staring at a two-on-one.
The biggest battle within that effort will be the Penguins’ defense against the Flyers forwards at each blue line.
The Flyers second line has been under the microscope of Flyers fans and coaches. Center Morgan Frost has been in and out of the lineup as the young player tries to figure it out. Tyson Foerster and Bobby Brink are the wingers, meaning the Flyers’ “second line” is comparatively weak. They’ll see ice time against the Penguins’ second pairing of P.O Joseph and Erik Karlsson.
If the pair has a good night, the Penguins will have a significant advantage.
If they get pinned in their own zone and are forced to defend against the tenacious Flyers, the Penguins will be in trouble.
Of course, Penguins captain Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel have been masking a few Penguins’ ills, too. Crosby is now the highest-scoring player in NHL history against Philadelphia.
The Flyers also hustle like no other team. Their tenacity might be the greatest reason they’re in third place in the Metro Division. For the Penguins’ stack of wins, they merely got the Penguins back to competitive for a playoff spot. Now, they must stack more wins to get themselves solidly into a playoff seed.