Before the season, the Flyers’ home game Monday against the NHL’s shiny new expansion team, Vegas, was viewed as a rare “gimme.”
Not anymore, of course.
Vegas is writing one of the most remarkable stories in NHL history. The Golden Knights (44-19-5) sit atop the Pacific Division, and they have set a league record for road victories by an expansion team, going 20-12-3 away from T-Mobile Arena.
In addition, the Knights have already set NHL expansion records for most overall wins, home wins, points, and longest winning streak (eight games).
And, so, yes, the Flyers – who don’t have much room for error if they want to win the Metropolitan Division title – will have their hands full on Monday.
“They’re extremely fast, skating-wise and puck-movement-wise,” right winger Wayne Simmonds said after practice Sunday in Voorhees. “We’ve got to be aware … and manage the puck properly. They seem to be killing teams off of transition.”
Jonathan Marchessault (65 points), William Karlsson (61 points, 35 goals – 29 more than last season with Columbus), David Perron (51 points), and Reilly Smith (60 points) pace the Knights, who have four balanced lines.
“They have some extremely good players,” Simmonds said. “I think they have some guys who were cast off by other teams, but given the opportunity, they’ve turned out to be big-time players. I think that’s what you need sometime – an opportunity – and you can show your skill. They’re a testament to that.”
The Flyers (35-23-11) gutted out a 4-1 win in Vegas on Feb. 11 as Sean Couturier had three points, and his top line, which includes Claude Giroux and Travis Konecny, combined for two goals and five assists.
The Flyers were outshot, 39-18, but Michal Neuvirth was superb in the nets. Neuvirth is now injured, so Petr Mrzaek, coming off a 27-save performance in the Flyers’ workmanlike 2-1 win Saturday over Winnipeg, is expected to get the call Monday.
It will be the first time former Flyers center Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, the hustling little Frenchman, returns to the Wells Fargo Center since he was lost to Vegas in the expansion draft.
“He was a good role player here, a great guy,” said right winger Matt Read, who has played well in the two games since he replaced Jordan Weal in the lineup. “I can’t say a negative thing about him. He was one of the friendliest guys I ever played with.”
Read thinks Bellemare will receive a warm reception.
“I’m sure the fans will have some signs out there for him,” he said. “It’ll be great to see him on the ice and see his smile.”
General manager Ron Hextall said he is hopeful Neuvirth and Brian Elliott can return and play late in the regular season.
The injury-prone Neuvirth, who has a 2.61 goals-against average and .915 save percentage in 21 games, has been skating recently, and Elliott (2.72, .908) is expected to resume skating this week.
“Neuvy’s a little bit ahead of probably where we thought,” Hextall said.
The Flyers signed forward Carsen Twarynski (43 goals) to an entry-level contract. Twarynski, 20, is nearing the end of his fourth season in the Western Hockey League and his second with the Kelowna Rockets, where he’s coached by former Flyers captain Jason Smith.
Couturier, who has a team-high 29 goals, and Brandon Manning were given maintenance days and were not at practice. On Saturday, Couturier played just 20 minutes, 17 seconds — his lowest total in the last 10 games. He has not scored a goal in the last 11 games, but coach Dave Hakstol said he didn’t think fatigue has been a factor. … Shayne Gostisbehere is goalless in his last 18 games. … The Flyers have won eight of their last nine games against Western Conference teams. After Monday, they will play 10 of their final 12 games against Eastern teams. … Hard-luck Oskar Lindblom is pointless in 10 games since being recalled from the Phantoms, “but he does a lot of the little things you need to do to win,” Hextall said. “Quite frankly, that’s why a guy like that stays up vs. maybe another guy who’s not producing and turns pucks over. Oskar’s going to break through at some point.”