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What to Watch For: Pens vs. Flyers

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins

PENGUINS (15-8-0) vs. FLYERS (11-12-1)
WHEN: March 7, 2013 - 7:00 p.m.  |  WHERE: Wells Fargo Center
WATCH: ROOT SPORTS  |  LISTEN: Penguins Radio 24/7, 105.9 FM

The Flyers may have a record that’s just under .500, putting them in fourth place in the Atlantic Division and one point out of a playoff spot. They’re not pleased with their first half of the season. But none of that matters heading into Thursday’s tilt against rival Pittsburgh – both teams always come to play in those games.

The Flyers won the last meeting between the clubs, with Jakub Voracek scoring the winner with 1:31 left in regulation to complete a hat trick and give his team a wild 6-5 triumph. Voracek has been dominating for the Flyers, with seven goals and 17 points in his last nine games. His 27 points (10G-17A) leads the Flyers and ranks among the league’s top 10. He’s playing right wing on the first line with Claude Giroux and Scott Hartnell, who has a goal and two assists in five games since returning from a broken foot that sidelined him for 15 games.

Another dominant player for the Flyers has been Wayne Simmonds, playing right wing on the second line with Danny Briere and Brayden Schenn. Simmonds has points in seven of his last eight games and has scored the game-winner in each of Philly’s last three wins. Simmonds and Voracek are tied for the team lead in goals (10) and power-play goals (5). Philly’s power play is operating at a 22.2-percent clip, which ranks sixth in the league.

But right now the Flyers are seeing more shorthanded time as they're the NHL’s most penalized team, totaling 149 for an average of 17.2 a game. They and the Penguins combined for 19 penalties in their last meeting. The Flyers did a marvelous job of agitating the Penguins and getting them off their game, sucking them into scrums and post-whistle skirmishes. Players like Hartnell, Zac Rinaldo and Sean Couturier are expert at extracurriculars, while big winger Simmonds is a consistent net-front presence is always willing to drop the gloves. Getting involved and retaliating back is something the Penguins said they have to figure out how to avoid.  

Finally, there will be a familiar face in the lineup for Philly on Thursday. After winning a Stanley Cup with Los Angeles last season, veteran Simon Gagne – who spent the first 10 seasons of his career in Philadelphia – is back in black and orange. The Flyers sent a fourth-round draft pick to the Kings for Gagne last week. He scored his first goal of the season in his first game back with Philly and is currently skating on a line with Couturier and Max Talbot.

(Getty Images)

Wayne Simmonds plays a very effective game. The lanky winger is a lot to deal with in the offensive zone, as he parks himself in front of the net (especially on the power play) and just has solid positioning around the net. He’s been clutch for the Flyers lately, scoring the game-winning goal in their last three victories. But not only can he find the back of the net, he can drop the gloves with the best as well. The Penguins need to contain him in all facets of the game – both on the scoresheet and from getting under their skin.

Right winger Neal was reunited with center Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh’s last game after a four-game separation (Malkin was out with a concussion), and the two combined for the game-winning goal. Neal has five of those this season, which leads the team by a large margin. He also leads the team and is tied for third in the league with 14 total goals. Suffice to say, Neal and his deadly release – especially on the power play – have been tough for opponents to contain, and should be tough for Flyers goalie Ilya Bryzgalov to stop.

The Penguins have fared well recently at Wells Fargo Center – posting a cumulative 9-3-1 record over their last 13 visits. The Penguins haven’t posted a losing record here since going 0-4 in 2007-08. Under Dan Bylsma the Penguins have gone 8-2-1 in 11 games at the Wells Fargo Center.

If recent series history between the Penguins and Flyers is any indication, it’s Pittsburgh that holds the advantage heading into Thursday's game. That’s because in the last 23 games between these two teams dating back to Jan. 13, 2009, the road team has posted a 17-5-1 record, compared to 6-15-2 for the home team. This season the road team is 2-0, while last season the road team went 3-2-1.

Look for special teams to play a huge role in determining the winner of this game. In the last 22 meetings between the two teams, during which the Penguins have gone 11-10-1, there has been at least one power-play goal scored in each game. During that stretch the Penguins have scored at least once on the man-advantage in 16 of the 22 games (22-for-97; 22.7 percent). The Flyers have scored at least one power-play goal in 18 of the 22 games (21-for-109; 19.3 percent). Pittsburgh has scored a power-play goal in four straight games against the Flyers (6-for-19; 31.6 percent).

Marc-Andre Fleury plays his best hockey in the month of March. In 83 career March games, Fleury has posted a 52-18-10 record. His 52 victories are by far the most he has notched in any one month, while his 2.35 goals-against average is also his lowest in any one month.

Fleury, who is tied for the NHL lead with 11 wins, enters tonight having gone 6-1 in his last seven starts dating back to Feb. 13. In those games he has posted a 2.44 goals-against average (17GA/418 MIN) and a .914 save percentage (181 saves/198 shots). Fleury has posted a 22-13-1 record and a .903 save percentage in 40 career starts against the Philadelphia Flyers. In 19 career starts at the Wells Fargo Center, Fleury is 12-5-1 with a .905 save percentage. He is 7-2-1 in his last 10 starts here.

After collecting six assists over his previous two games, Kris Letang finds himself leading all NHL D-men with 21 points (3G-18A) in 20 games played this season. Not only are his 18 assists three more than the next-closest defender, but they place him tied for fourth among all NHL players regardless of position. Only three NHL players – Sidney Crosby, Martin St. Louis and Evgeni Malkin – have a higher assist-per-game average than Letang.

Penguins defenseman Paul Martin was back at practice with his teammates Tuesday afternoon at Southpointe. Martin, who is listed as day-to-day with a lower-body injury, hasn’t played since the team’s Feb. 28 game in Carolina.

"I felt great today," Martin said following Thursday's morning skate. "Last couple days it has been getting better every day and today was no different. Hopefully, I expect to be in tonight."

Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said Thursday's lineup would be a game-time decision.

Flyers defenseman Nicklas Grossmann, the league leader in blocked shots, suffered a lower-body injury in the first period of Tuesday night's game against the New York Rangers and did not return.

D Paul Martin, lower body

F Tye McGinn, broken orbital bone
D Andrej Meszaros, upper body
F Matt Read, upper body
F Jody Shelley, hip

Author: Michelle Crechiolo
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