Tampa Bay, the NHL leader with 69 points, will be the latest challenge for the surging Flyers when they meet Thursday at the Wells Fargo Center.
“We want to go into the all-star break feeling good about ourselves,” said center Sean Couturier, whose team has eight of its last 10 games following its 5-3 victory in Tampa on Dec. 29.
Thursday’s will be the Flyers’ last game before the break, during which they will be off the ice for three days. They won’t play again until next Wednesday in Washington.
The Flyers have won four straight to push into third place in the crowded Metropolitan Division. Three points separate the second- and seventh-place teams. The Flyers have the same number of points as second-place New Jersey, but the Devils are technically ahead because they have played one fewer game.
In last month’s win over Tampa, Couturier had a goal and a pair of assists, and Claude Giroux had three assists. Led by Nikita Kucherov (league-best 61 points, 27 goals) and Steven Stamkos (56 points, 18 goals), the Lightning is averaging an NHL-high 3.5 goals per game. Tampa’s defense is third (2.54 goals per game).
“You have to put trust in your ‘D’ and play a really strong, smart hockey game against them,” center Scott Laughton said after Wednesday’s practice in Voorhees. “They’re so skilled offensively that if you turn pucks over in the neutral zone, they’re going to make you pay. You have to keep them off the power play, too, because we know how many weapons they have.”
“They have so much speed, and they want to get in a drag race with you,” said Dale Weise, who might return to the lineup Thursday because the Flyers could be without second-line left winger Michael Raffl.
Raffl appeared to injure his left leg in the second period of Tuesday’s 3-2 overtime win in Detroit, and the Flyers did not have an update Wednesday. Raffl has nine goals in his last 27 games and has played well since being moved off the fourth line.
Weise could replace him. He has been a healthy scratch the last eight games.
“It’s extremely frustrating,” Weise said of his long benching. “Obviously you’re happy to see the guys win, but everybody wants to play. That’s what I love to do for a living. I want to play hockey. I don’t want to practice and not play. I’m just waiting for the opportunity, and when I get one, I’ll be ready.”
Weise said there’s “really no way you can stay sharp when you miss that kind of time. You try to do extra work in morning skates and try to do some work off the ice, but when you sit out that long … it’s tough.”
The Flyers, who are on a 16-5-1 run since ending their 10-game losing streak, have won five straight at the Wells Fargo Center.
“It’s a huge game. We’re coming back home and excited to get back in our building,” Laughton said. “We just have to play the same way as we have on the road – a simple hockey game and don’t try to impress too many people with fancy plays. Just play simple and smart, and you usually get rewarded when you do that.”
The Flyers won Tuesday in Detroit despite a listless first period – Laughton called it “one of our worst of the year” — and numerous defensive breakdowns in the third period.
“In the third period, we gave up a couple of opportunities that we have to clean up,” coach Dave Hakstol said. “On the flip side, we’re getting the timely save, and we had extra effort on some of those defensive breakdowns to get back and help.”
He cited a play late in the game when Jake Voracek came “from about 150 feet away on the backcheck to break up what probably would have been an empty-net tap-in for Detroit.”
Flyers goalie Brian Elliott is expected to make his 21st start in the last 24 games. … The Flyers had 10 players on the ice for their optional skate Wednesday. … Tampa goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy is having an outstanding season (2.21 goals-against average, .930 save percentage).