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What To Watch For: Pens vs. Flyers

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins

PENGUINS (21-11-4) vs. FLYERS (21-10-4)

WHEN: Dec. 29, 2011 - 7:00 pm  |  WHERE: CONSOL Energy Center

WATCH: ROOT SPORTS  |  LISTEN: Penguins 24/7 Radio, 105.9 FM

The date that Penguins fans everywhere have circled on their calendars has arrived.

December 29 is finally here – which means that Jaromir Jagr, Max Talbot and the rest of the Philadelphia Flyers are coming to Pittsburgh for the first time this season. And this game carries a lot of weight as the division rivals are tied in the Eastern Conference standings with 21 wins and 46 points apiece.

While the Penguins enter Thursday’s game having won four straight, the Flyers have had trouble establishing momentum as of late. They’re 1-3-1 in their last five contests after embarking on a seven-game win streak from Dec. 2-15, and they come to the Steel City having lost back-to-back games. The Penguins will be looking to hand their cross-state rival their third straight loss, something that has not yet happened for Philadelphia this season.

Linemates Jaromir Jagr and Claude Giroux (Getty Images)
Jagr, who spent his first 11 NHL seasons with the Penguins, didn’t record a point in the last meeting between the teams – but the 39-year-old is averaging nearly a point per game (30 points in 31 contest) and has 13 of those in his last 11 games. But perhaps the bigger story this year for Philly has been Jagr’s linemate, Claude Giroux, who's thrived playing alongside the Czech superstar.

Thursday will be Giroux’s fourth game back since missing four straight with a concussion. The 23-year-old has got 15 points in his last eight outings and continues to lead the NHL in scoring with 44 points, which is the latest a Flyer has led the league in scoring in a season since Eric Lindros back in 1999. And not only are Jagr and Giroux doing well, but the third member of that top line – Scott Hartnell – has been having a career year. He ranks second on the Flyers in scoring with 33 points and tied for first in goals (17).

Overall, Philly’s offense is a force to be reckoned with as they rank second in the league in goals per game. It’s actually their second line that did the most damage in the Flyers’ 3-2 win over Pittsburgh on Dec. 8, with both Danny Briere and Wayne Simmonds getting on the board – and their third and fourth lines are just as capable of doing damage.

The Flyers did suffer an enormous blow on their blue line a few weeks ago when the club announced that captain Chris Pronger would miss the rest of the regular season and playoffs with severe post-concussion syndrome. However, it’s their goaltending that’s been struggling as Ilya Bryzgalov has lost four straight starts and has a 4.58 goals-against average over that span. So there’s a chance the Penguins may see backup Sergei Bobrovsky between the pipes, who’s 3-1-1 in his career against Pittsburgh and has a 1.47 goals-against average in his last seven games.

PENGUINS: The Penguins will certainly need their top line of Chris Kunitz, Evgeni Malkin and James Neal to continue their outstanding play. But Pittsburgh will really need a monster effort from center Jordan Staal, who produced a dominant effort against Carolina on Tuesday. The durable, physically strong center will be counted on for his defensive shutdown abilities and on the penalty kill against a tough Flyers squad. But while Staal excels in that role, he’s also been producing offense with 14 goals and a team-best 21.5-percent shooting percentage – and Pittsburgh will be looking to get the most out of their two-way center Thursday.

FLYERS: It’ll certainly be interesting to see how the crowd at CONSOL Energy Center will receive Jaromir Jagr after he did not accept the Penguins’ one-year, $2 million offer to return to the NHL with the team that he spent his first 14 NHL seasons with, choosing instead to sign with the club’s bitter rival. What will be just as interesting is how the 39-year-old winger – who’s averaging nearly a point per game and has 13 of those in his last 12 games – will respond to it.

With a win against the Flyers, head coach Dan Bylsma moves into sole possession of second place on the franchise's all-time wins list with 136, passing his predecessor Michel Therrien (135) and trailing Ed Johnston (232). Bylsma has established himself as one of the top head coaches in the NHL since taking over Feb. 15, 2009. He enters the game with a career mark of 135-67-23. In his first 110 home games, Bylsma has compiled a record of 71-30-9.

With a win Thursday, the Penguins would equal their season-high five-game winning streak they embarked on from Oct. 18-27. During their current four-game stretch, the Penguins have outscored their opponents by a 19-8 margin. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has been in net for all three wins.

Evgeni Malkin and James Neal extended their scoring streaks to eight games on Tuesday against Carolina. They now have the longest simultaneous scoring streak between teammates in the NHL this season. Should Malkin and Neal record points Thursday, they will tie for the longest point streaks in the NHL this season. Chicago's Patrick Sharp and Anaheim's Teemu Selanne are the only other players to have nine-game point streaks this season.

Malkin enters Thursday's game with points in each of his last four games against Philadelphia and at least one point in nine of his last 10 contests versus the Flyers. During those 10 games, Malkin has five goals, nine assists and 14 points.

Malkin is ranked second (tied) in the NHL scoring race with 42 points (15G-27A), just two behind the league leader, Philly's Claude Giroux.

Penguins defenseman Deryk Engelland was suspended for three games by the NHL for his hit on Marcus Kruger on Dec. 20. Engelland missed the Dec. 23 game at Winnipeg, the Dec. 27 contest vs. Carolina and will also have to sit out Dec. 29 vs. Philadelphia. He will be eligible to return Dec. 31 at New Jersey.

Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma gave a number of injury updates following practice Wednesday, with the most relevant ones being that forward Richard Park (fractured foot) and defenseman Paul Martin (lower body) will skate before practice on Thursday and may partake in the morning skate afterward.

D Robert Bortuzzo, concussion-like symptoms
C Sidney Crosby, undisclosed
F Dustin Jeffrey, knee
D Kris Letang, broken nose and concussion
D Paul Martin, lower body
F Richard Park, fractured foot

C Sean Couturier, head
D Erik Gustafsson, wrist
D Chris Pronger, severe post-concussion syndrome

Author: Michelle Crechiolo

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