1. HIGH FLYERS
Although the Blackhawks and the Flyers occupy different placements in their respective conferences and are on somewhat different trajectories, the objective for both teams will be the same when they meet on Wednesday: Just win. Chicago has fallen into an apparently annual March funk, losing three straight tilts against the cream of the crop in the West over the last week, leading Head Coach Joel Quenneville to tinker with his forward lines and renew focus on special teams execution at their most recent practice. Philadelphia, on the other hand, has re-joined the playoff conversation on the back of a 9-2-2 run, and they are now just one point out of the final wild card spot in the East after a big 4-3 win over Detroit on Tuesday. Michael Raffl tallied twice in the game, which saw the Flyers dominate early (shots were 23-3 after the first period) and survive a third-period surge by the Red Wings. With Steve Mason stopping 34 of 37 in the game, the Blackhawks could face athletic backup Michal Neuvirth in net on Wednesday.
2. GHOST BEAR
One reason for Philadelphia's resurgence is young blueliner Shayne Gostisbehere, who has provided offensive value immediately upon his debut. He's just the 14th rookie defenseman in league history to reach 16 goals and the most prolific scorer since Dion Phaneuf netted 20 over 82 games in 2005-06; Gostisbehere can appear in a maximum of 64 games this season. In addition, he made history after posting a 15-game point streak from Jan. 19-Feb. 20, all-time longest among first-year defenders. The 22-year-old has 39 points thus far, including four goals in his last four outings, and his 0.78 points-per-game pace ranks fifth among all NHL blueliners, ahead of big-time contributors like P.K. Subban, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Roman Josi. Gostisbehere has especially been a menace while quarterbacking the Flyers' power play: He leads league defensemen in terms of generating shots with the man advantage (per 60 minutes), ahead of John Carlson, Jake Muzzin and Kris Letang. The Blackhawks managed to kill off both of their penalties on Monday against the Kings, but if they're undisciplined on Wednesday, keeping the Gostisbehere-run Philly PP quiet will be a difficult task.
3. LINEUP SHAKEUP
Quenneville announced after Tuesday's practice that Scott Darling would get the start on Wednesday against Philadelphia, as Corey Crawford will earn some rest after enduring a few rough starts. Darling has a 4-3-0 record in nine appearances (seven starts) against Eastern Conference teams this season, including a perfect 3-0 record on home ice; he's never faced the Flyers. Just two of his last six appearances have been true starts, so Wednesday should be a good opportunity to get the Blackhawks' backup netminder back into game rhythm. Quenneville also shook up his forward lines to try and form some new chemistry, resulting in Tomas Fleischmann and Patrick Kane flanking Jonathan Toews on the top line, Marian Hossa slotting down to the second line, Teuvo Teravainen centering Andrews Ladd and Shaw on the third line and Andrew Desjardins moving back to center on the fourth line.
4. WAYNE'S WORLD
After tallying his 25th goal of the season against Detroit, Wayne Simmonds is four away from matching his career best of 29, set two seasons ago. The power forward was in his element on Tuesday, leading forwards with 21:00 of ice time, including 6:22 on the power play. Simmonds added a team-best eight shots on goal—five at even strength, two with the man advantage and one while shorthanded—and now ranks second on the team with 179 SOG this season (behind Giroux). When the Flyers are able to establish their cycling game in the offensive zone, defenders tend to have a hard time getting Simmonds out of the crease, where he's been one of the league's best at jamming goals in from close range, so the Blackhawks will need to contain his stick and prevent him from screening the goalie on Wednesday.
5. SONIC YOUTH
After the trio of captain Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek and Simmonds, the Flyers' next three highest scorers comprise a younger secondary core that's been instrumental in a transition year. Aside from Gostisbehere, there's 24-year-old Brayden Schenn, who has a career-best 23 goals this season and matched his personal best of 47 points from last season with an assist against Detroit on Tuesday; he has two goals and three assists in his last five games. With Voracek currently injured, Schenn is skating on Philadelphia's top line with Giroux and Simmonds, and together the trio has controlled around 54 percent of shot attempts at even strength. Meanwhile, Sean Couturier has been an underrated checking center since entering the NHL; since 2011-12, the 23-year-old has been deployed for 2,447 defensive zone faceoffs, 16th in the league among forwards and in the company of notable two-way forwards like Anze Kopitar and Ryan O'Reilly. Although Couturier has never crossed the 40-point plateau, he does have offensive upside and has collected an assist in four of his last five games while centering the second line. (All stats via corsica.hockey.)
THE FINAL WORD
This iteration of the Blackhawks has been through worse, so a three-game skid against the Western Conference's best shouldn't be seen as more than an annoying hiccup, but a win against a Flyers team desperately trying to make the postseason would certainly bring some relief to the dressing room and the fan base. No matter how Chicago's forwards are configured, on paper they still possess enough depth to outplay Philadelphia, especially in the continued absence of Voracek, and the blue line beyond Gostisbehere and veteran Mark Streit isn't the most mobile group. But there's enough top-end talent on the team to make life difficult for the Blackhawks if they let their guard down, and a 60-minute effort will be needed to restore some confidence to Quenneville's group.