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The latest installment in the Flyers-Penguins rivalry comes up Saturday afternoon at the Wells Fargo Center, and the stakes are perhaps as high as they’ve been in a while. It’s the first of three games left between the teams, with both clubs jockeying with Detroit for the final two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. It's also a situation of two hot teams colliding head-on - the Flyers are 8-1-1 in their last 10 and have points in six consecutive games, while the Penguins have won their last four in a row.
The way the teams are both playing, it might not be between the two clubs as to who makes the playoffs – they could both get in, and Detroit would be on the outside in that case. But then the battle between the two teams would be for who’s seventh and who’s eighth – with the implications being the teams would be playing for the privilege of avoiding the Washington Capitals until the Conference Finals at the earliest.
“They’re going good,” Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol said after Friday’s practice. “They’re a team that looks like they’re playing loose, they’re playing hard. They’re playing well, and it should make for a [heck] of a matchup.”
The Penguins took the first meeting between the clubs back in January, picking up just their second regular season regulation win over the Flyers at CONSOL Energy Center since the building opened in 2010. The Flyers are ready to write that off though and get back to their winning ways, having taken eight in a row over the Pens before that loss. They’ve won the last three games played between the teams at Wells Fargo Center, and they are 8-3-1 against Pittsburgh in regular-season games played in March and April since the 2010-11 season.
“It’s a huge game,” said defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere. “It’s a playoff game for us. We’re really excited about it. The building’s going to be electric for sure, and personally I’m very excited. We can’t wait.”
The game could see the return of Jake Voracek to the lineup. Voracek appeared ready to go in Friday’s practice and saw time on a line with Nick Cousins and Matt Read. Scott Laughton dropped off that line to the fourth line with Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Ryan White.
“We just got him on a line today, so I wouldn’t read too much into that,” Hakstol said. “But those guys have played a game or two together. If he was to end up there, those guys have a familiarity, but no final decision has been made.”
Whenever Voracek does return, he’s facing an unfamiliar road. He’s never missed this many games in a row before, and he will have to deal with the usual phenomenon of returning to game speed – something most players have to do regardless of how hard they work before they get back into the lineup. But his teammates are very eager to see him there.
“He’s a staple of our team,” Gostisbehere said. “Just to see how good we did without him is amazing; I can’t wait to see how much better we are with him.”
REST OF THE LINEUP
The Flyers are 8-1-1 in their last ten games, nine of which (7-1-1) came without Voracek. That’s because of the improved and consistent play up and down the lineup. One such instance is the Flyers’ second power play unit, which has accounted for the team’s last four power play goals. Radko Gudas has three goals in the last six games, while Michael Raffl has three goals in the last three. Contributions have come from all corners.
However, when it comes to consistency, the top line has been the definition of it. When Voracek went out of the lineup, Wayne Simmonds stepped in to replace him. And out of the last nine games, a member of that line has scored in seven of them.
“I think it starts with they’re working 200 feet,” Hakstol said. “That’s been a huge part of some of our success here. Everyone one of our forwards has been playing a 200-foot game and taking pride in it. All three of those guys have done it. They’ve played a lot of hockey together, so they’ve got some cohesion. They’re going at a pretty good clip.”
Voracek, who’s had a good look at the team’s success, doesn’t think the team’s recent successful play was limited to just that stretch.
“Even before I got hurt, those three games when [Giroux] got hurt we stepped up as well,” Voracek said. “Minnesota, Toronto and Carolina – it’s been more than the last nine or 10 games, it’s been the last 15 or 20 games.”
EYEING THE PLAYOFF PICTURE
Detroit and Pittsburgh both won Friday night, meaning the Red Wings jumped back ahead of the Flyers into the final wild card spot and the Penguins opened their lead back up to four points. The Flyers have two games in hand on Detroit and one in hand on Pittsburgh entering the weekend. Detroit is at Florida tomorrow before enjoying two days off; Pittsburgh plays a back-to-back, heading to Washington after their game at the Wells Fargo Center.
Saturday’s contest airs on Comcast SportsNet and on 97.5 The Fanatic.