Because the Flyers haven’t been that good the last few years, their heated rivalry with the two-time defending Stanley Cup-champion Pittsburgh Penguins has not seemed quite as intense.
That will change Wednesday night.
The Flyers will host the Penguins at the Wells Fargo Center, and the winner will have at least a share of first place in the Metropolitan Division.
Pittsburgh (80 points) will go into first with a win. The Flyers (79 points) will tie idle Washington (81 points) for first with a regulation victory. If the Flyers win in regulation or a shootout, they will be tied for first with both the Capitals and Penguins – at least points-wise. The Caps will have played fewer games, however.
“Obviously, we know what’s at stake tonight,” right winger Jake Voracek, who is tied with Winnipeg’s Blake Wheeler for the NHL lead with 57 assists, said after Wednesday’s morning skate at the Wells Fargo Center. “It’s going to be a tough game because they’re playing really well. … The second half of the year, they always turn it up, it seems. So it’s going to be a tough game, but it’s always exciting.”
“I feel whenever we play these guys, it’s a little more than just a regular-season game,” center Val Filppula said. “It’s a good measuring stick for us; they’ve been a top team in the league for a while now, and so it’s a good place to see where we’re going.”
Flyers coach Dave Hakstol didn’t want to label the game a measuring stick, but called it a “real important two points. … We feel good about our hockey team, regardless of who we’re playing against. We know we’re playing against a real good hockey team. Two-time defending champions. That always maybe adds a little bit to it, but we feel good about our hockey team. I like the fit of all of our lines right now and of the six ‘D’ that are going to be in there tonight.
“We’ve got a big job to do, and we have to go out there and do it.”
High-scoring right winger Wayne Simmonds, who missed the last seven games with an unspecified injury, will return to the lineup Wednesday and give the Flyers lines more balance.
“It’s going to be a very tight game … a pretty spirited game,” Simmonds said. “It always is when we play Pittsburgh.”
Penguins star Sidney Crosby said the rivalry has always been at a high level, “but with what’s on the line tonight — important points and divisional stuff — I think it’s to be expected that it will pick up even more.”
Hakstol didn’t like his team’s first-period attack level in a 5-1 loss to visiting Pittsburgh on Jan. 2.
“To be blunt, I thought we were too easy to play against in the first period,” Hakstol said. “We weren’t in attack mode. That’s one of the things as a team that has continued to grow and develop. We’ve had a little bit more of that attack mentality, and this is our building. This is an important game tonight, and that’s the mentality of our hockey team.”
The Jan. 2 game was scoreless after 20 minutes, but Pittsburgh built a 4-1 lead in the second period.
Wednesday could be a preview of a first-round playoff series.
“It feels like almost every game against them is a different type of game than a lot of games,” Voracek said. “Maybe the last one wasn’t because we lost, 5-1, at home and we just weren’t good enough. … But it’s going to be high intensity and I’m very excited about that.”
The Flyers have lost three straight.
Voracek said staying out of the penalty box will be a key Wednesday, along with containing the Penguins’ speed and keeping turnovers to a minimum.
The Penguins have a big advantage in special teams. They have the NHL’s top power play, clicking at 26.4 percent, and their penalty kill is 12th (81.7 percent success rate).
The Flyers’ power play has struggle recently and is ranked 13th (20.6 percent), and their PK is 29th (75.1 percent).
The Flyers have been the better five-on-five team, outscoring opponents by 122-112. Pittsburgh has been outscored, 150-129, in those situations.
Petr Mrazek (11-9-4, 2.90 GAA, .906 save percentage) will face Penguins rookie Tristan Jarry, who is 12-5-2 with a 2.69 GAA and .913 save percentage. In two career games against the Flyers, the 22-year-old Jarry is 2-0 with a 3.00 GAA and .889 save percentage.
Mrazek, 26, struggled against the Penguins while playing for Detroit: a 2-4 record, a 4.02 goals-against average, and an .890 save percentage.
The Penguins are just 13-17-3 on the road, while the Flyers are only 16-10-6 at home. … Rookie Robert Hagg leads the NHL with 229 hits. … Crosby has 16 goals and 40 points in 29 career appearances at the Wells Fargo Center. The Pens have won 17 of 29 games in Philadelphia with Crosby in the lineup. … Evgeni Malkin has 65 points (24 goals, 41 assists) in 51 career games vs. the Flyers. … Claude Giroux has 43 points (14 goals, 29 assists) in 42 career games vs. the Penguins. Shayne Gostisbehere and Voracek are averaging a point a game in their careers vs. Pittsburgh. … Giroux is tied for fifth in the NHL with 78 points. Pittsburgh’s Phil Kessel is seventh with 76 points.