Flyers face Penguins in potential playoff preview

Pittsburgh Penguins' Evgeni Malkin (71), of Russia, brings the puck towards Philadelphia Flyers' Andrew MacDonald (47) during the second period of an NHL hockey game on Sunday, March 16, 2014, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

PITTSBURGH - If the Flyers are going to make a Stanley Cup playoff run, they will have to end a puzzling late-season trend: fizzling in the third period.

It's puzzling because the Flyers have been outstanding in the third period during most of the season; they have a club-record 11 wins in games in which they trailed in the final period.

But in the last five games, they have been outscored, 11-3, in the last 20 minutes. That's the main reason they have fallen out of the battle for second place in the Metropolitan Division, guaranteeing they will start next week's playoffs on the road.

"We were hit or miss in the third," winger Wayne Simmonds said after Tampa Bay pulled away from a 1-1 tie and defeated the Flyers, 4-2, on Thursday. "We had some bonehead plays that cost us the game."

The Flyers, who play in Pittsburgh on Saturday afternoon, had defensive lapses and couldn't finish golden scoring chances against the Lightning, especially in the final period. It was a development that has become all too familiar during the stretch run.

"We're not playing smart, not keeping it simple," Simmonds said. "We're just not playing the way we were in the middle of the year in the third. Obviously that's got to change. Third periods are huge, come playoff time. . . . We have to try to turn this around in the next two games in the third period."

"We've got two games to get things sorted out, get things on the right page . . . going into the playoffs," winger Scott Hartnell said.

The Flyers finish the regular season by playing in Pittsburgh on Saturday, and hosting Carolina on Sunday. They were tied with Columbus for third place in the Metro, pending the result of the Blue Jackets' game in Tampa Bay on Friday night.

If the Flyers were to finish third, they would face the New York Rangers in the opening round. Should they finish as the first wild card, they would meet Pittsburgh - a team they have dominated this season; they would oppose Boston if they dropped to the second wild ard.

Told that Flyers winger Jake Voracek said his team would prefer not facing the Penguins or Bruins in the first round, Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby wasn't buying it.

"Guys say stuff they don't always mean," said Crosby, the player who once said about the Flyers: "I don't like any guy on their team."

The Flyers are 3-1 against the Penguins this season, and they are 8-1-1 in regular-season games at the Consol Energy Center since the arena opened in 2010-11. They are 10-2-1 there if you include the playoffs.

The Penguins have clinched the Metro title and are assured of the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. They have nothing to play for on Saturday afternoon - except to send a message that the Flyers won't have an easy time in the Consol Energy Center if the teams were playoff opponents.

"We just look at the game to make sure we're playing the right way going into the playoffs," said Crosby, the league's overwhelming MVP favorite.

Pittsburgh is a more formidable opponent than when the Flyers swept them in consecutive days in mid-March. With the recent return of Kris Letang and Paul Martin, the Penguins have their top six defensemen healthy for one of the few times this season.

Breakaways. Steve Mason, who has started just three of the last six games, is expected to return to the nets. . . . In a poll of nearly 1,500 voters, about 84 percent said the Flyers would have a better playoff chance against the Penguins than the Rangers.

Follow Sam Carchidi on Twitter @BroadStBull.