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 will also be assisting fans with three must-watch elements of the game.
The Battle of Pennsylvania is a great rivalry.
Every time the Pittsburgh Penguins play the Philadelphia Flyers, it seems Philadelphia has their number for some reason. Quite often, the Flyers' physical play gets the Penguins off their game, so it's key for the Penguins to stay disciplined and play within their game when the two teams play Wednesday at Consol Energy Center (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVA, SN1).
Do they get suckered into it? Do the Penguins stay disciplined and play within their game, or do they get sucked into playing the Flyers' style of game, and become a bit unraveled and take some penalties?
These are teams in different places right now. The Penguins are competing in the Eastern Conference despite some key injuries, and the Flyers have been eliminated from playoff contention. But these games are always intense, no matter what.
Here is my breakdown:
Right Wing - PIT
GOALS: 14 | ASST: 14 | PTS: 28
SOG: 96 | +/-: 1
Pluses: What a year Steve Downie is having. Not only is he bringing the toughness and the sandpaper they need in their group, but he's playing pretty good hockey and contributing on the offensive end. He's quietly having a good season and bringing that production.
The Penguins have been very banged up recently, especially on defense, but having the firepower up front helps because those guys are certainly game-breakers. They have good offensive players; they have really good offensive players. You take Pascal Dupuis, and he's been a really good fit with Sidney Crosby on the top line, and he's out of the lineup. You take Chris Kunitz, and at times he's been out.
When you think about the guys who are missing: Olli Maatta being a top-end, young defenseman in the League right now, and between Kris Letang and Christian Ehrhoff. When you can add a healthy Evgeni Malkin back in the mix, and you have Crosby playing the way he's playing, those are guys who are game-breakers. And Patric Hornqvist has quietly had a good season, and even he's been banged up with injuries too. He's had a really nice season as well.
The good thing for Pittsburgh is it has the depth to be able to withstand a lot of those injuries, but the question becomes for how long can they do it?
Minuses: Tough sledding right now for Pittsburgh just in terms of injuries. The other day the Penguins played with five defensemen, and credit to them.
They've been hit hard, especially on their back end, Letang being the latest one for them, unfortunately. He was having an amazing season; he is having an amazing season, I should say, especially given the health challenges he's come back from. Unfortunately for him, he was the recipient of that hit against the Arizona Coyotes. The Penguins have had to battle through these injuries on their back end, and that's been very difficult for them.
Injuries up front as well; different guys have been injured at different points. But credit to them overall how they've played; they've had a good season, especially when you consider a lot of the guys who have been out. Maatta, Ehrhoff is out, Letang; they got down to five defensemen. So give them a lot of credit for the year they're having.
Pluses: When you look at the season that Jakub Voracek is having, he's taken his game to a new level, and he's thrived playing in Philadelphia. He's having a great season on a team that's struggling; that says a lot about how great he's playing.
Wayne Simmonds, he had 28 goals; I'm sure he would have gotten 30, maybe even 35. He had an amazing season as well, but difficult with him now sustaining the season-ending injury.
The goaltending, not this season, but prior to getting Steve Mason was a question, but I believe Mason is on track now. He's become a better pro, his practice habits have gotten better, and his work ethic has gotten better. Quite frankly, he's got tough skin. He's played through injuries, he's played banged up, and he's doing that in Philadelphia. They had a great quarterback, an excellent quarterback, I believe, in Donavon McNabb, and that was never enough. Philadelphia is not an easy place for quarterbacks or goalies.
Goaltending has always seemed to be a question, but it's no longer a question, I believe, with just how well Mason has played. He's really matured, he's become a better pro, and he hasn't wilted under the pressure of Philadelphia. If anything, I think it's made him stronger playing there. Both last year and this year, he's played well there.
With where the Flyers are in terms of the standings, some young guys will have a chance to prove their worth. I've been in those situations before where you're on those teams as a younger player, a guy in his early to mid-20s. It gives you the opportunity to play some extended minutes.
You want to take advantage of that and show that you belong in the NHL; you want to show that you are an NHL player. It's tough sometimes with your team losing, but you can't write the script for how you get called up. You can't fully write the script for the opportunity, and when it's going to present itself, and how. All you can try to do is do your best when you get the opportunity. You have to recognize the urgency as a player in that role to do your best.
That is kind of a little bit of a silver lining: For some of those younger players to get an extended look, or guys who are trying to cement themselves in the League to be able to do that.
Minuses: For Philadelphia, the challenge has really been its team just has to make some changes. Ron Hextall needs to continue to reshape that team. That's the reality; they have to reshape the Flyers. They don't have enough depth on the back end, and that's something that they have to improve. To take the next steps, all the good teams in the League, especially the top teams, they're real deep on the back end. They have multiple pairings that they can put out in any situation; guys who can defend, and guys who can attack.
Look no further than the turnaround for the Calgary Flames. It's led by their captain Mark Giordano. To me, if Giordano didn't get hurt, he would have won the Norris Trophy. You look at the season they're having. Dennis Wideman just got his 14th goal, Kris Russell. TJ Brodie. They have the highest-scoring back end in the League. When you talk about Sean Monahan, when you talk about Johnny Gaudreau, and when you talk about Jiri Hudler, and how well that line has done, and deservedly so, and the great season that Calgary is having, it wouldn't be made possible if the defense wasn't having the season it's having, and if their defense wasn't as productive.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
1. When stars align
Right Wing - PHI
GOALS: 21 | ASST: 55 | PTS: 76
SOG: 211 | +/-: 7
I'm looking to see if Voracek is relishing the opportunity to go head-to-head and play against Sid and Malkin. Just what kind of game Voracek has, and obviously Claude Giroux
too. Giroux has always played well against Pittsburgh.
2. Let's get physical
Let's see how physical Philadelphia is going to be. This is a great rivalry. Players on each team and fans of each team are very passionate; they take it very seriously. These games are always intense. I'm looking for a playoff-type atmosphere, even though the Flyers are out of the playoff picture. I'm still looking for a playoff-type atmosphere, and playoff look and feel to the game. It will be a physical game from Philadelphia's standpoint.
3. On the clock
With all the injuries Pittsburgh has on its defense, someone is going to have to replace those minutes. How many minutes does Paul Martin play? Just to see who their big-minute guys are, and if they have to play a few more minutes just because of their injuries on the blue line.