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.
The games are always intense when the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers play. There's no extra incentive needed other than beating your biggest rival. However, the intensity should be ratcheted up a few notches for this one.
[RELATED: 5 Reasons to watch Penguins-Flyers| Gostisbehere putting it together for Flyers]
The Penguins have won eight of their past 11 and are one point behind the Washington Capitals for first place in the Metropolitan Division. The Flyers, who have lost three straight following a six-game winning streak, are in third place, one point behind the Penguins.
One team will pick up a pivotal two points when the Penguins (38-25-4) visit the Flyers (34-21-11) at Wells Fargo Center (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVAS, NHL.TV). Here's my breakdown of the game:
Pluses: Obviously Sidney Crosby (70 points; 22 goals, 48 assists) has been great, but I can make a case for Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel as MVP right now. Malkin is second in the League in points with 82 (37 goals, 45 assists) and has 31 power-play points. Kessel is right behind him with 76 points (27 goals, 49 assists) and continues to fly under the radar because of his teammates.
They can score up and down the lineup. Jake Guentzel has 20 goals, Patric Hornqvist has 18. Depth players Conor Sheary (12) and Bryan Rust (10) also have reached double figures in goals.
Video: PIT@CAR: Guentzel taps in Kessel's perfect pass
Guys are hitting their stride at the right time. It may have taken a while but the Penguins look hungry coming down the stretch. When you have a champion that is hungry and motivated, it's tough for the rest of the League.
Minuses: Do they have enough D? The Penguins had a lot of subtractions but not many additions during the offseason. Losing Trevor Daley and Ron Hainsey hurt; plus, they traded Ian Cole prior to the NHL Trade Deadline. The loss of a lot of veteran presence on the back end could hurt.
The health of goaltender Matt Murray is key. I believe he is elite and is a game-changer for them, but he's gotten nicked up the past two years. He's out again right now but hopefully can get healthy. Tristan Jarry has played well in his absence, but he's not Marc-Andre Fleury, who came off the bench last season.
How much do they miss Daley, Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen? The latter two were key centers and were big reasons the Penguins won the Cup in each of the past two seasons. Trading for Derick Brassard helps, but he still has to get acclimated to his new team.
Pluses: Their best players have been their best players, mainly Claude Giroux (78 points; 23 goals, 55 assists) and Jakub Voracek (71 points; 14 goals, 57 assists). Sean Couturier has had a breakout season with 63 points (29 goals, 34 assists). The rest of the team has seemed to follow, with Travis Konecny (36 points; 17 goals, 19 assists) and even rookie Nolan Patrick (20 points; 10 goals, 10 assists) has started to turn it around.
Video: PHI@OTT: Patrick scores on nifty redirect
Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov have been great defensively and offensively. "Ghost" has already has an NHL career-high 50 points (10 goals, 40 assists) and is plus-13 after struggling with 39 points (seven goals, 32 assists) and a minus-21 rating in 76 games last season. Provorov has 32 points (12 goals, 20 assists) and has played 24:20 per game, most on the team. I think their season turned around when they started defending better. There definitely haven't been as many defensive lapses in the past few months.
Lastly, forward Wayne Simmonds, who hasn't played since Feb. 18, is expected to return to the lineup. The Flyers definitely missed his scoring knack (20 goals) and physicality, and he should bring it against the Penguins.
Minuses: Can the Flyers get enough production from their bottom six? It's been a problem most of the season. And while it's nice to have your top players contribute, you can't always expect that to be the case every game.
Goalie Petr Mrazek has all the tools but he's struggled recently. Following a 28-save shutout against the Montreal Canadiens on Feb. 26, he's lost three straight, allowing 14 goals in the process. The Penguins bring in a high-powered offense. Can Mrazek rise to the occasion? It will take time, but he's played great in some games and not so great in others.
The Flyers hopefully won't take many penalties because if they do, it may not end well. Philadelphia ranks 29th in the League on the penalty kill (75.1 percent); the Penguins rank first in power-play percentage (26.4).
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
1. Who do the Flyers match up against Crosby or Malkin?
2. How do the young goalies do in Jarry and Mrazek?
3. How intense will this edition of the battle for Pennsylvania be with so much on the line?