Each Wednesday throughout the regular season, Kevin Weekes will be offering his pluses and minuses for the teams competing in the NBCSN Wednesday Night Rivalry game in his Weekes on the Web blog. Weekes also will assist fans with three must-watch elements of the game.
Don't look now, but the Pittsburgh Penguins are closing in on the top spot in the Eastern Conference and the League.
Prior to a 4-3 shootout loss to the red-hot Calgary Flames on Monday, Pittsburgh had won five straight. The Penguins are within two points of the Washington Capitals for the top spot in the League standings with a game in hand. A trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs to defend their title is almost guaranteed.
The same can't be said for their cross-state rival, the Philadelphia Flyers. Philadelphia has lost three straight games and is seven points behind the New York Islanders for the second wild card into the playoffs from the Eastern Conference. The Flyers are running out of time to make a run.
The Pennsylvania rivals meet for the first time since the Penguins (43-16-9) defeated the Flyers (31-29-8) in the 2017 Coors Light Stadium Series at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh on Feb. 25. This time, they'll be at Wells Fargo Center on Wednesday (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVA Sports, NHL.TV). Here's my breakdown of the game:
Pluses: Overall the goaltending has been good. Matt Murray has had a great season (26-8-3, 2.33 goals-against average, .925 save percentage, four shutouts). But let's not forget about Marc-Andre Fleury. He wasn't dealt at the NHL Trade Deadline and was excellent while making 40 saves in a 3-2 shootout win against the Edmonton Oilers on Friday, which followed a 28-save shutout against the Buffalo Sabres on March 5. They've been a great 1-2 punch, and the Penguins are lucky to have two No. 1 goalies. Fleury (374 victories) is tied with John Vanbiesbrouck for 15th on the NHL's all-time wins list.
Next is the play of the superstars. Sidney Crosby has been amazing, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel have been awesome. Each of the three can dish it off as well as score. The fact that they can score or pass makes it hard for other teams to defend them, and having that many weapons is a huge plus.
Their defense used to be a problem, but now it's turned into a strength. They acquired Ron Hainsey and Mark Streit (who was injured on Monday and could miss this game) before the NHL Trade Deadline, but let's not forget about Justin Schultz, who's having his best offensive season with 46 points (12 goals, 34 assists) and is plus-30.
Video: WPG@PIT: Kessel picks the corner for game-tying PPG
Minuses: The Penguins have dealt with a lot of injuries. Trevor Daley was great prior to getting injured. The same can be said for workhorse Kris Letang. And now Streit could be out for some time after getting injured on Monday.
After last season's playoff run, plus the World Cup of Hockey 2016, a lot of players on the team have played a lot of hockey in the past year or two. The Penguins look like they are in for another deep run and that could mean playing more than 100 games (regular season and playoffs) in each of the past two seasons.
If the game gets to be physical, the Penguins may have trouble. We all know they rely on their speed, which they excel at, but clearly the Flyers are more physical.
Pluses: Brayden Schenn got his 20th goal of the season on Monday. He's eclipsed 20 goals in three of the past four seasons can play every position and in every situation.
The emergence of the younger players for the Flyers such as defenseman Ivan Provorov and forwards Travis Konecny and Jordan Weal. It's an opportunity for these guys to get ice time and prove that they can play bigger roles next season.
Lastly, despite them needing to win and have a lot of other teams lose, the Flyers haven't been eliminated from postseason contention yet. They went on a run last season to sneak into the playoffs, so they know they can do it.
Video: CBJ@PHI: Konecny cranks a wrister past Bobrovsky
Minuses: The Flyers won 10 straight games earlier in the season but haven't been able to build off that success. Imagine how much further behind in the wild-card race they would be had they not gone on that run. While no team has ever missed the playoffs during a season in which it has won at least 10 straight games, it's looking like the Flyers will be the first.
Steve Mason (19-19-7, 2.77 GAA, .905 save percentage) and Michal Neuvirth (10-10-1, 2.91 GAA, .888 save percentage) haven't been up to the level that they were last season (Mason: 23-19-10, 2.51 GAA, .918 save percentage; Neuvirth: 18-8-4, 2.27 GAA, .924 save percentage) but some of that is a function of the team as well.
The Flyers don't really have one defined style of game. Last season, they became an attacking team with speed. They were faster, challenging opposing defensemen, initiating a lot more offensively, and that's who they were on a consistent basis in the second half. Right now, are they a physical team, a defensive team, are they checking team? Their identity is kind of all over the map.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
1. How will the Flyers cope with the speed of Pittsburgh?
2. What style of game does Philadelphia play?
3. How do the Flyers defend against the Penguins' top three lines?