Flyers Gameday: 5/3/21 vs PIT; Phantoms Blanked by Bears
GAME 51: FLYERS vs. PENGUINS
The final week of what has simultaneously been a very short and yet interminable 2020-21 NHL season is upon Alain Vigneault's Philadelphia Flyers (22-22-7) before they head into a crucial offseason that has many question marks and few clear-cut answers.
On Monday and Tuesday, they will host Mike Sullivan's East Division leading Pittsburgh Penguins (34-15-3). Game time at the Wells Fargo Center is 7 p.m. EDT. The game will be televised on NBCSP.
Entering this season, the Flyers had some roster concerns -- especially the unreplaced departure of Matt Niskanen via early retirement -- but still seemed to be at least a likely playoff team after a breakthrough 2019-20 season and trip to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. For Pittsburgh, after three Stanley Cup championships amid a 14-year period era of being at least a perennial Cup contender, the window for another one seemed to be nearly closed. The Penguins were widely predicted to face a battle to reach postseason play.
Nothing changed those predictions after the regular season opened with the Flyers beating the Penguins by 6-3 and 5-2 scores. The Penguins had a territorial edge in both games, especially the latter, but the Flyers won comfortably. Carter Hart outplayed Tristan Jarry by a wide margin in both games and the Flyers were opportunistic on their chances with a seemlngly well-balanced lineup.
Fast forward to March, which started with the Flyers and Penguins playing each other three straight games at PPG Paints Arena. The Flyers entered the month with the top points percentage in the East (11-4-3 record), a team 3.39 goals per game average, and a team 2.89 goals against average. There were a variety of areas that needed to be cleaned up but it seemed doable.
The Penguins, who had played two more games than the Flyers at that point due to the COVID-19 related postponements of four games for Philadelphia, entered March with an 11-8-1 record, but were under water in the goals-per-game (3.25) vs. team GAA (3.25) categories. Pittsburgh also learned they'd be without Sidney Crosby for at least the first game of the three-game set when he was placed in COVID-19 protocol.
Pittsburgh won the first game nonetheless, prevailing by a 5-2 score. Two nights later, the Flyers very quickly fell into a 3-0 deficit but, led by Claude Giroux, battled all the way back and claimed a 4-3 regulation win despite Crosby being back in the Penguins' lineup and the Flyers being without Joel Farabee (who was scorching hot offensively at the time) for that game.
In what proved to be a major turning point of the season for both teams, the clubs met for the rubber match on March 6. The Flyers held leads of 1-0 and 3-2. Late in the second period, however, Brian Elliott yielded a very stoppable-looking goal to Zach Aston-Reese that sent the game to the third period tied at 3-3. Midway through the third period, Jared McCann put the Penguins ahead, and they went on to beat the Flyers in regulation, 4-3.
The Penguins' bounceback win after blowing the three-goal lead on March 4 was the true takeoff point of their season and the beginning of the Flyers' staggering and nightmarish slide from first-place contender to a team that has already been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs.
From March 1 to May 2, the Flyers have staggered to a record of 11-18-4 with a 2.42 GPG average and 3.94 GAA. Pittsburgh has the NHL's second-best record in that span (23-7-2) with a team 3.69 GPG and 2.38 GAA. It turned out be Carter Hart who has had a nightmarish season while Jarry settled in and has posted a 23-9-3 record, .912 SV%, a pair of shutouts and even four assists.
Hockey being hockey, however, the Flyers won a 2-1 (2-1) shootout decision in Pittsburgh on April 15. In what turned out to be Hart's last game of the 2020-21 season before he was shut down for an MCL sprain suffered late in this season, the Flyers goalie looked like his old self in posting 30 saves during the game and stopping two of three shots in the skills competition. Crosby scored the lone Pittsburgh goal during regulation.
Entering the closing back-to-back of the season series, the Flyers have a 4-2-0 record against Pittsburgh in head-to-head meetings. That is scant consolation for what's gone on with the two teams over the last two months.
Last Thursday, the Flyers were mathematically eliminated from Stanley Cup playoff contention. On Saturday, the Flyers lost their third straight game in regulation to the New Jersey Devils after staging a comeback win over the Devils in the first match of the four-game set. In the final game, only an otherwise meaningless late third period goal by Farabee prevented Mackenzie Blackwood from recording a shutout. The Devils won, 4-1.
The Flyers had an off-day on Sunday. Today the club will have its annual team picture taken at the Wells Fargo Center in the morning. There may be a morning skate, as well, since there was no practice the previous day. Brian Elliott and Alex Lyon will split the goaltending chores in the back-to-back set.
The Penguins enter play on Monday two points ahead of the Washington Capitals for first place in the East Division. The Caps hold one game in hand. The teams are in a dead heat (26-26) in the regulation wins tiebreaker but the Penguins hold a 31-29 edge in ROW.
On Saturday, the Penguins moved past the Capitals in the standings on the strength of a 24-save shutout by Jarry and two goals by Bryan Rust. Jeff Carter tallied his fourth goal in the 10 games since the Penguins acquired the veteran from the LA Kings. Two nights earlier, the Penguins captured a 5-4 overtime win in Washington.
The Penguins may remain without Evgeni Malkin (lower body).
28 Claude Giroux -14 Sean Couturier - 93 Jakub Voracek
86 Joel Farabee - 13 Kevin Hayes - 11 Travis Konecny
25 James van Riemsdyk - 21 Scott Laughton - 57 Wade Allison
23 Oskar Lindblom - 19 Nolan Patrick - 62 Nicolas Aube-Kubel
9 Ivan Provorov - 61 Justin Braun
6 Travis Sanheim - 53 Shayne Gostisbehere
8 Robert Hägg - 5 Phil Myers
34 Alex Lyon
[37 Brian Elliott]
PP1: Giroux, Couturier, Allison, Voracek, Gostisbehere
PP2: Hayes, Farabee, JVR, Konecny, Provorov
Scratches: 55 Samuel Morin (healthy), 59 Jackson Cates (healthy), 53 79 Carter Hart (MCL sprain, out for the remainder of the season).
Injured reserve: 48 Morgan Frost (shoulder surgery), 58 Tanner Laczynski (hip surgery).
COVID-19 protocol: None.
59 Jake Guentzel - 89 Sidney Crosby - 17 Bryan Rust
16 Jason Zucker - 71 Evgeni Malkin - 42 Kaperi Kapanen
19 Jared McCann - 11 Frederick Gaudreau - 77 Jeff Carter
12 Zach Aston-Reese - 53 Teddy Blueger - 7 Colton Sceviour
8 Brian Dumoulin - 58 Kris Letang
52 Mark Friedman - 4 Cody Ceci
28 Marcus Pettersson - 6 John Marino
1 Casey DeSmith
[35 Tristan Jarry]
PP1: Rust, Crosby, McCann, Guentzel, Letang
PP2: Zucker, Carter, Kapanen, Matheson, Marino
Scratches: 2 Chad Ruhwedel (healthy), 14 Mark Jankowski (healthy), 9 Evan Rodrigues (lower body, day-to-day), 18 Sam Lafferty (healthy), 5 Mike Matheson (healthy).
Injured Reserve: 13 Brandon Tanev (upper body).
COVID-19 protocol: None.
Phantoms Blanked in Hershey
The Lehigh Valley Phantoms are in a three-game mini-slump, going 0-2-1 in that span. On Sunday, Scott Gordon's team lost a 2-0 road decision to the arch-rival Hershey Bears.
A 40-save performance by Felix Sandström -- his third straight excellent start -- went to waste as Hunter Shepard notched a 28-save shutout. Brett Leason broke a scoreless deadlock at virtually the midpoint of regulation (9:58 of the second period). Axel Jonsson-Fjallby scored a late empty-net goal to seal the final margin of victory for Hershey.
The Phantoms and Bears will rematch on Wednesday at the PPL Center in Allentown.