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One last tune up

With only one preseason game left, a look at what's left to watch for

by Bill Meltzer @billmeltzer / http://www.philadelphiaflyers.com

The sounds of hockey - the rhythmic snap of passing drills, the rattling thud of bodies and pucks along the boards and glass, the clanging of goal posts, the shrieking blasts of coaches' whistles and the chirps and hollers from Flyers teammates on the ice - go silent on an off-day training camp. However, Friday's off-day is just the calm before the storm.

Over the next 72 hours to come, the Flyers will conclude one of the most competitive camps in decades and make the transition to preparations for opening night of the regular season. On Saturday at 11 a.m., the team will have its final training camp practice. On Sunday at 5 p.m., the Flyers host the New York Islanders at the Wells Fargo Center in both teams' final preseason tuneup. 

Here are three things the Flyers need to accomplish during their final ramp-up before heading out for the four-game road trip (San Jose, Los Angeles, Anaheim and Nashville) that starts the season. They are listed in roughly chronological order.

1. TEAM MEETINGS ON & OFF THE ICE

The final practice and game will, of course, unfold on public display. However, there will also be a variety of behind-the-scenes activity taking place in the next few days, whether it's team meetings, video sessions, or players' typical off-ice training regimens. 

On the ice, fans could see the experiment of Claude Giroux playing left wing on a line with Sean Couturier and Jakub Voracek continue through the final weekend of camp. While the arrangement is a hot topic of debate among Flyers fans and the media, the team captain hopes the coaches opt to keep the trio together.

"When you play with two good players like that… it makes everybody's job a lot easier," Giroux said after Thursday's 5-1 win over the Boston Bruins. "We'll see what happens here. We've got one more game to go. We like playing together and, hopefully, we can keep playing."

Another potential line combination that could remain together over the weekend is the trio of Nolan Patrick centering Jordan Weal and Wayne Simmonds. Other forward line combos and the three defensive pairings could see personnel tried in different combinations over the last weekend, although Scott Laughton has pretty steadily played with Michael Raffl as one of his wingers and Valtteri Filppula appears to be a lock to center the third line on opening night. 

The Flyers struggled on special teams through much of camp until there was an opportunity to devote practice time to it. There were baby-steps taken the home-and-home set with the New York Rangers, with the second unit arguably outpacing the top unit in generating offensive zone entries, movement and pressure. 

In the most recent game against Boston, everything started to click. Although the top unit did not score, it generated numerous scoring opportunities.

"Hopefully, we're saving some of our goals for opening night," Voracek said with a grin. Meanwhile, the second unit struck for a pair of man advantage markers on Thursday. 

"I liked everything I saw in the first two, three, four power plays. Absolutely I thought both units moved it well. Coot's unit moved it real well all night and were able to finish a couple, I thought the other unit was really good as well," Flyers coach Dave Hakstol said. "I thought early on they were, it looked like things were getting to a pace where they were snapping pucks around. They were crisp, they were recovering pucks, making the next play, and nothing was slow enough or really lethargic, it was just sharp and crisp."

The Flyers were 4-for-4 on the penalty kill on Thursday. For good measure, the Flyers connected on a tic-tac-toe shorthanded rush as they gained a 4-0 lead at 8:46 of the second period. 

Over the final weekend of training camp and heading into the opener, the Flyers will aim to hit the ground running at even strength and on both ends of special teams. 

2. SETTING A GOALIE PLAN

It is no secret that the Flyers will enter the season with veterans Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth in a tandem arrangement in goal. What is unclear right now is how the game plan for Sunday's preseason finale will be set.

Originally, Neuvirth was slated to start Thursday's game and go the distance as he did in Monday's 3-2 overtime loss at Madison Square Garden. Elliott, who manned the net for Tuesday's 4-3 overtime victory at home against the Rangers, traveled to his alma mater on Thursday to accept induction into the University of Wisconsin Athletics Hall of Fame. The plan was for Elliott to start the final preseason game after his return to the team. 

Unfortunately, Neuvirth came down with an illness on Thursday. Lehigh Valley Phantoms goaltender Alex Lyon, originally expecting to serve as the backup goaltender against the Bruins, was pressed into starting service and stepped up with a 31-save performance before returning to Allentown for the Phantoms' home exhibition opener on Thursday.

Over the weekend, Hakstol and goaltending coach Kim Dillabaugh need to make a decision about the goalies. Do they simply keep Elliott on his planned schedule of his second full-game start? Alternatively, do they give the game to Neuvirth if he's feeling better? Or do they handle it in the fashion more typical of the earlier preseason, in which the two goalies divide the work?

Even more intriguing will be the determination of the team's opening night starter in San Jose. Both goaltenders have played well in camp. Whichever goalie backs up in San Jose stands a good chance of starting the next night in Los Angeles.

3. THE FINAL CUTS

The Flyers have two roster cuts left to make before opening night. While it is theoretically possible that the club could make three cuts and go into the season with a 22-man active roster (13 forwards, seven defensemen and two goalies) it seems more likely to be a 23-man group (14 forwards, seven defensemen, two goalies) that takes the trip out west. 

While head coach Dave Hakstol and general manager Ron Hextall likely by now have an inkling of how they're leaning in the final decisions, there is still an opportunity for players on the bubble to state their case over the final practice and exhibition game.

"Everyone who is still here is here for a reason," Hakstol said. "They've worked and earned it. It's been a highly competitive camp. There are tough decisions to make, but that was our objective coming into camp."

During the offseason, Hextall indicated that he prefers not to carry eight defensemen, as the team has often done in recent years. Unless that plan changes, that means there will be one final cut made among the eight defensemen still in camp. To get to 14 forwards, on additional cut is needed. 

Hakstol indicated that internal discussions would take place after the final exhibition game and then decisions would be made on which players travel west and which ones potentially start the season with the American Hockey League's Lehigh Valley Phantoms.

The Flyers final preseason game takes place Sunday in a 5 p.m. start (TCN & 97.5 The Fanatic).

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