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Pittsburgh vs. Philadelphia Preview

by Sam Kasan / Pittsburgh Penguins

Pittsburgh Penguins (20-19-4-44) at Philadelphia Flyers (23-10-9-55)
Where: Wachovia Center
When: Tuesday, January 13 at 7 p.m.
Radio: WXDX Radio, FM 105.9
TV: FSN Pittsburgh, the game will be broadcast in HD, available on Armstrong 179, Atlantic Broadband 782, Citizen 737, Comcast 226/774, DISH 428 and DirecTV 659.
*View FSN's HD Broadcast Schedule here
Season Series: Pittsburgh leads 2-1-0. Pittsburgh is 0-1-0 at Wachovia Center this season with a 6-3 loss Dec. 13. The Penguins won both contests at Mellon Arena this year, each ending in a shootout.



Pens vs. Flyers 12/13/08
Off-Day: Sykora 1/12
Off-Day: Talbot 1/12
Off-Day: Crosby 1/12
Off-Day: Therrien 1/12
Two-Headed Monster: The Penguins have reunited Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on a line together. The tandem responded in the previous game with a goal and an assist each. Big players have to make big plays in big games - as the redundant saying goes. It’s about time for Pittsburgh’s two best players to put this team on their backs and carry it out of the recent slump.

Blooming Flower: Crosby and Malkin aren’t the only two players that can carry this team. Marc-Andre Fleury has proven in the past that he can “stand on his head” and will the Penguins to victory. Fleury hasn’t been sharp in the past couple of games, but he’s going to have to be on top of his game against Philadelphia. The Flyers have the fifth-best offense and second-ranked power play in the NHL. If Pittsburgh gets anything short of a stellar performance in net, then their losing stretch will likely reach eight out of nine games. 
Two years ago Philadelphia had the worst record in the NHL. General Manager Paul Holmgren rebuilt the club by stockpiling young talent and dumping aging veterans. The Flyers were rebuilt from a team of muscle to a team filled with speed and skill. As a result, the Flyers rebounded last season with a 39-point improvement and an appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals in head coach John Stevens first full season on the job.

Philadelphia has been a streaky team this season. They had a shaky start to the season, losing their first six games (0-3-3). They responded with four straight wins, followed by three losses in a row. At that point, Philadelphia caught on fire, losing only once in regulation in its next 17 games (13-1-3). The Flyers have claimed the top spot in the Atlantic Division standings and are currently riding a six-game unbeaten streak (4-0-2) into their matchup with Pittsburgh.
The Flyers lost a lot of key contributors from last year’s playoff team, including R.J. Umberger, Vaclav Prospal, Sami Kapanen and Jason Smith. Holmgren didn’t make any flashy signings in the offseason, adding short-lived Steve Eminger and Ossi Vaananen at defense and center Glen Metropolit. For once, the Flyers have a GM in Holmgren who won’t just throw money at aging veterans. But Philadelphia tried to bolster its defense with a couple of in-season moves. First, they added Andrew Alberts from Boston. Then the team sent Eminger, Steve Downie and a fourth-round pick to Tampa Bay for Matt Carle and a third-round pick.
Philadelphia is loaded with young talent up front with Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Joffrey Lupul, Scottie Upshall and Scott Hartnell. The Flyers have six players who scored 20 or more goals last year. Add in Danny Briere, Mike Knuble and a healthy Simon Gagne and Philadelphia might have six players score 30 or more goals. The Flyers rank fifth in the NHL with an average of 3.29 goals per game.

Carter has exploded out of his shell and developed into one of the best - if not the best - finishers in the National Hockey League. His 29 goals this season lead the entire league. He also paces the Flyers with 46 points. Carter is working between Lupul and Hartnell. Lupul has tallied 25 points (13G-12A) while Hartnell has added 30 (16G-14A).

Philadelphia signed 23-year-old Mike Richards to a 12-year contract and anointed him the Flyers captain. He’s responded to the new leadership role and is second on the team with 44 points (16G-28A). He centers the top line with Gagne and Knuble. Gagne is off to one of the best starts of his career with 18 goals and 23 assists for 41 points in 39 games. He’s playing at full speed and appears to have no lingering affects from the concussion that cost him 57 games last season. Knuble has chipped in with 15 goals this year, including two against the Penguins the previous contest.

It’s been a very forgettable season for Briere, who has been sidelined throughout the year. A sports hernia and groin tear cost him nearly all of October and November. He missed all of December with a new unrelated groin tear. There is a chance he could return against Pittsburgh. He recorded five goals and four assists for nine points in nine games this season. When he’s played, he’s played well. It’s a big loss for the Flyers.
The Flyers early season struggles were due to the team’s inability to keep the puck out of their own net. Two months ago, Philadelphia was surrendering 3.36 goals per game, seventh most in the NHL. The team has tried to address the issue with a few in-season trades. The moves appear to have paid off as the team’s goals against has dropped to 2.83, ranking 17th.

Braydon Coburn is the 23-year-old cornerstone of the defensive corps. Coburn and Kimmo Timonen emerged as top-tier defensemen and were particularly impressive in the team’s playoff run. Holmgren reworked the remaining defensive corps, adding Matt Carle, Ossi Vaananen and Andrew Alberts. Carle is a young, offensively blessed defenseman. As a rookie, he posted 42 points (11G-31A) with San Jose. Carle had a disappointing sophomore campaign, registering only 15 points. The change of scenery seems to have rejuvenated the young man as he’s already notched nine points (2G-7A) in a Flyers uniform. Alberts, a big body at 6-foot-5, 220 pounds, adds a physical presence on the blue line. 18-year-old rookie Luca Sbisa has been a versatile addition for the Flyers after the team selected him with the 19th overall pick in June. He’s seen extensive action on the blue line for Philadelphia and even filled in at forward for three games. But a roster spot is need with Briere's eminent return and the Flyers are considering sending Sbisa back to his junior team.
Martin Biron had his best season in six years last season, winning 30 games with a 2.59 goals against average and .918 save percentage. Antero Niittymaki is solid, if not spectacular, and a quality backup goaltender. Biron has gotten the bulk of the playing time and has a 15-7-5 record with a 2.79 goals against average and .908 save percentage. Biron struggled in the early part of the season and was letting a ton of rubber past his body. The Flyers upgraded their defensive corps and that has translated into help for the goaltenders.  Biron has been stingy of late. He’s 12-2-4 in his last 18 starts. Niittymaki has performed admirably in his sparse starts with an 8-3-4 mark, 2.62 GAA and .913 save percentage.
Scott Hartnell was the sixth-overall selection in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft by the Nashville Predators. He made the lineup as an 18-year-old rookie but Hartnell never fulfilled his high promise in Nashville. The Predators traded away their first-round pick (2007) to Philadelphia as part of the Peter Forsberg deal. But the Predators wanted that first-round pick back and reacquired it after shipping Philadelphia Kimmo Timonen and Hartnell.

Hartnell needs no introduction to Penguins fans. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound forward made his presence felt on and off the ice for the Flyers organization. He’s the type of player that you hate, but would love to have on your team. Hartnell is gritty, likes to get his hands dirty and loves physical contact. He throws his body around in a wreck-less fashion and will drop the gloves with anyone, as he proved against Eric Godard earlier this season. But Hartnell isn’t just your average energy, tough guy. He’s developed into a well-rounded power forward, chipping in 16 goals and 14 assists for 30 points this season - to go with his 70 penalty minutes. Hartnell does a lot of damage in front of the net, especially on the power play where he has scored 10 man-advantage goals in each of the past three seasons. Hartnell has two hat tricks this year and is on pace to shatter his previous career highs in goals (25), assists (27) and points (48). Hartnell is starting to blossom at 26 years old, and still has a lot of hockey ahead of him.
“This is a tough place to play but I believe we’re going to be ready for that challenge. They’re a really good team. They’re really well balanced. We’re going to have to be on top of our game if we want to have any type of success there.”
- Penguins head coach Michel Therrien on playing in Philadelphia
The Flyers have gone 12-0-2 in their last 14 home games, including an active eight-game winning streak. Philadelphia hasn’t lost in regulation at Wachovia Center since Nov. 8 (2-1, Tampa Bay).

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