It snuck up on a lot of the Flyers that 44 games into the season, they have yet to play the Pittsburgh Penguins. Of the 38 games remaining, four of them will be against their rivals from the other side of the Commonwealth, beginning with tomorrow night at CONSOL Energy Center. The other three all get stuffed into the last three weeks of the season – March 19 in Philadelphia, April 3 in Pittsburgh and then the final day of the campaign on April 9 in Philly.
It might be a scheduling quirk, but over the past three seasons (including this one), 10 of the 13 games between the two teams have been scheduled for between mid-January and the end of the season – the time of year when playoff races are heating up or are well underway. So it means that in addition to the fierce rivalry the two teams have had over the past eight years or so, the games are also very high-stakes affairs.
This year is no different – in fact, because of the nature of the Eastern Conference, they may be bigger than any previous set of games between the teams other than the 2012 conference quarterfinals. The game will begin with Pittsburgh holding a one-point lead on the Flyers (49 to 48) and the Flyers holding one game in hand. It’ll also begin with the third through 13th teams in the Eastern Conference separated by no more than eight points, depending on what Detroit does tonight against St. Louis. Only six of those 11 teams will make the playoffs.
Bottom line – this one is big.
“We’re aware how big this game is,” said Flyers captain Claude Giroux. “It’s only been 45 games or so. We’re still trying to get better. This time of year, that’s when you need to climb up the standings and give yourself a chance at the end of the year to have some room to fight for a playoff spot.”
There is no more evidence needed for how easy it is to fall in this race than to look at the Montreal Canadiens, who were first in the conference on December 14 and yesterday fell out of playoff position with their loss to Boston. From here on out, the playoff race is going to resemble a pack of cars on a NASCAR track – where one blip on the radar in the form of a few consecutive losses can knock a team way back on the playoff ladder. That’s why the Flyers know it’s so important to rebound from the Toronto game with a solid effort.
“I think it’s important we need to learn how to recover from a loss, especially a loss like last night,” Giroux said. “I think we just need to go back to what we were doing, work hard and kind of have fun doing it too.”
The good news for the Flyers is they’re going to a building where they’re 11-1-1 since it opened in 2010. For whatever reason, the Flyers have had Pittsburgh’s number at CONSOL Energy Center.
“It’s a good rush to play there,” Giroux said. “In the past, at home or away, any time we play Pittsburgh, it’s pretty intense. They’re fun games to play.”
NOTABLES: Sean Couturier had a maintenance day Wednesday, and Jordan Weal skated in his place on a line with Brayden Schenn and Michael Raffl… after the Pittsburgh game, the Flyers head to Brooklyn to take on the New York Islanders on Saturday night.