Thursday, 7:00 p.m. at Wells Fargo Center
Riding high on a current six-game winning streak, the Philadelphia Flyers have vaulted all the way up to second-place in the Metropolitan Division. Having scored three goals or more in 11 consecutive games, their offense has begun to click in a way that has them now being considered a legit threat in the Eastern Conference. With a roster full of scoring threats, the depth of scoring that the Flyers have provided on a nightly basis has proven to be overwhelming for so many opponents.
While Philly did not add much of significance other than some depth pieces at the deadline, they nevertheless are well situated to challenge the Capitals for the top spot in the most competitive division in hockey. After a slower start in net, Carter Hart has turned his season around as his numbers have stabilized with a .909 save percentage and minuscule 2.51 goals against average as he has won eight of his previous nine games. With his performances becoming more consistent, and with the offensive explosion currently taking place, the Flyers have put together a nice combo of an offensive and defensive gameplan that compliment each other nicely.
Travis Konecny has officially experienced his breakout season, already topping his career high in points, in his fourth season. With 60 points thus far, he is averaging nearly a point per game in leading the Flyers offensively. Along with Sean Couturier (58 points), Jakub Voracek (52 points), Claude Giroux (49 points), James van Riemsdyk (40 points) and Kevin Hayes (39 points), the Flyers have six players who are distinct offensive threats with a variety of different strengths. With such a diverse set of skills, the Flyers believe that they have the ability to play and win a number of different styles as they play into Spring.
After a long break, the Canes will certainly feel desperation for a victory as they arrive in Philly on Thursday. If they are to get a victory, they will have to put together a complete effort to get their first win against the Flyers of the season.
New York Islanders
Saturday, 1:00 p.m. at NYCB Live/Nassau Coliseum
The New York Islanders have followed along from the script set out last season, which was their first under head coach Barry Trotz: a tightly knit defensive group at each level of the ice backed up by solid goaltending. Toughness and grit surrounded by just enough scoring touch to be competitive every single night.
And that is exactly what the Isles have produced yet again. Currently fourth in the Metro and in a wild card spot, a team that is in the bottom-third of the league in scoring has still managed to put together a successful campaign.
The big move of losing Vezina finalist Robin Lehner and replacing him with veteran Semyon Varlamov has worked out just fine. Varlamov has put together a .917 save percentage in 37 starts in front of one of the more defensively-conscious units in the league. His partner in net, Thomas Greiss, has delivered almost identical numbers in 26 starts. Combined, they have established a quality tandem that makes the question of “which goalie is in net tonight for the Isles?” largely irrelevant.
Mathew Barzal again paces the Isles offensively as the speedy Center has posted 56 points on the season. Flanked again by Brock Nelson (50 points), Anders Lee (40 points), and Josh Bailey (40 points) as major offensive contributors, the Isles deal in a different kind of depth: not scoring depth, but rather consistent effort and assignment execution. They create offensive chances when they prey on the chance-taking of teams that cannot penetrate the middle of the ice against them on the other end. Basically, the Islanders are the University of Virginia basketball team on skates. While the brand of play may not always be the most exhilarating, it is certainly effective.
In order for the Canes to beat the Isles, they must do two things:
- If at all possible, get out in front first. Chasing the game has been a habit of the Canes of late, and that is a recipe for disaster against the Isles. The Isles are 23-1-2 when leading after two periods. You have to play from in front.
- They must remain patient. If it is a close contest, as many battles with the Isles tend to be, patience when not creating as many chances as a team would like is an absolute must. Any effort to go outside of the scheme to create a look, whether it be a dangerous play in the neutral zone or an over-aggressive pinch by a defenseman in the offensive end, is where the Isles make opponents pay.
Sunday, 1:30 p.m. at PPG Paints Arena
Despite a season full of injuries early, the Pittsburgh Penguins find themselves in a familiar position: Inside the playoff cut line within the Metropolitan Division. That being said, the recent offensive drought the Pens have run up against has put that status in a perilous position. Losers of six straight, the Pens have scored just eight total goals in those six contests, all while yielding 24. Their terrific play up until that point gave them the buffer needed to weather that storm, but now is the time to snap out of it in order to stay in front of a host of hard-charging divisional rivals.
Injuries have curtailed the seasons of Sidney Crosby (36 games, Jake Guentzel (39 games, and out the rest of the year), and Evgeni Malkin (50 games), but the Pens have managed to supplement their needs just enough. The recent addition of Jason Zucker from the Wild is the hopeful answer to the Guentzel loss, and he has chipped in five goals in his first 10 games in the Steel City. Veteran Patrick Marleau was traded for, but he is more of a depth piece at this point in his career. And even though the Pens have done an admirable job dealing with the injuries offensively, they are just middle of the pack in scoring.
The real boost has come on the other end. Despite another sub-par year from Matt Murray (.900 save percentage, 2.85 goals against average), the Pens have been saved by his partner in net. Tristan Jarry has gone 20-11-1 in 32 games as he has basically split time with Murray. Jarry has put together a robust .924 save percentage and had only given up more than three goals twice all season until a recent three-game slide from Jarry (a part of the overall team struggles) saw him concede a season-high five goals twice. As Murray continues to struggle, it will be interesting to see if it remains a timeshare, or if the 24-year-old Jarry begins to take the lion’s share of play as we enter crunch time.
Both teams will be on a back-to-back for this Sunday matinee, so you would expect “starting on time” might be a significant talking point and factor in this contest. The Canes will be finishing a crucial week against division rivals that are all ahead of them in the standings, before rolling into a week that could present some opportunity with trips to Detroit and New Jersey before returning home. In order to be a playoff team, a big week would go a long ways.