Bill Meltzer: Flyers Gameday: 12/16/14 vs. TB, Peter Forsberg Night, Holiday Toy Drive

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PREVIEW: FLYERS VS. LIGHTNING

With a 3-0-2 record over their last five games and looking to win their third straight game on a four-game homestand, the Philadelphia Flyers (11-13-5) will play host to the Tampa Bay Lightning (19-10-3) at the Wells Fargo Center on Tuesday night. Game time is 7:00 p.m. EST. The game will be televised on CSN Philadelphia.

Prior to the start of the game, there will be a short ceremony to recognize Peter Forsberg for his recent induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Forsberg will speak to the media after the first period.

This is the second of three meetings between the Flyers and Lightning this season, and the first of two in Philadelphia. On Oct. 30 in Tampa, the Flyers showed resiliency to battle from behind on a night where they got outgunned but penalty troubles proved to be their undoing in a 4-3 loss.

The Flyers will conclude their homestand on Thursday with a game against the Florida Panthers. The Lightning, who are in the second half of back-to-back games and playing for the third time in four nights, are in the third game of a five-game road trip. The trip continues on Friday with a game against the New Jersey Devils. Flyers outlook

Tonight’s game is a big test for the Flyers as they continue to try and climb out of a hole they dug for themselves in the Eastern Conference and Metropolitan Division. Even with their recent mini-surge, Philadelphia is 3-4-3 over its last 10 games and 4-8-3 over the last 15. A win against Tampa would be an important step in the right direction.

In the first two games of their homestand, the Flyers have outscored their opponents by a combined 9-2. However, the Lightning represent a tougher grade of competition than the New Jersey Devils (4-1 win last Thursday) or Carolina Hurricanes (5-1 win on Saturday afternoon).

Philly has been getting much-improved secondary scoring assistance of late. This has been much needed to supplement whatever Jakub Voracek (11 goals, 26 assists, 37 points) and Claude Giroux (eight goals, 26 assists, 34 points) produce in a given game.

Wayne Simmonds, who leads the club with 13 goals and seven power play goals among his 21 points, has five goals and six points in his five games. Sean Couturier brings a six-game point streak (three goals, four assists, seven points) in tonight’s game. Brayden Schenn, who has multi-point games in two of the team’s last three games, has two goals and five points in the last five games. Matt Read has a goal and two assists in his last two games.

In Saturday’s game against Carolina, rookie Scott Laughton scored his first NHL goal as well as chipping in an early-game assist. The Flyers also got goals from Read, Simmonds, Voracek (power play) and Michael Raffl. Steve Mason made 25 saves to earn the win, with most of the action coming in the third period.

Apart from an uptick in scoring depth, the Flyers have showed improved commitment to team defense of late. Above all, they’ve been getting excellent goaltending.

When the Flyers skate, control the gaps and apply both back-pressure and forechecking pressure, they become a much more difficult opponent for most teams. When they become stationary spectators and the gaps widen, they spend too much of the game in their own end of the ice because it’s too easy for other clubs to enter the Philadelphia zone and too hard for the Flyers to clear the puck to safety. Playing Tampa will test all of these areas.

Former Lightning icon Vincent Lecavalier will sit out his seventh straight game as a healthy scratch the Flyers. Defenseman Michael Del Zotto will be a healthy scratch for the third straight game. Forward Ryan White (torn pectoral muscle) is close to being ready to make his Flyers debut — or at least embark on a rehab assignment with the AHL’s Lehigh Valley Phantoms — after missing training camp and the entire season to date. Lightning outlook

It is no secret that the Flyers struggle against Tampa Bay. Philly has lost each of its last five game against the Lighting and seven of its last eight — all in regulation. However, if there is ever an ideal time for the Flyers to catch Tampa, tonight might be the night.

The Lightning have not been playing their best hockey of late. The club has dropped back-to-back games and has lost four of its last five. Thus far in the month of December, the Bolts are 3-4-1.

Last night in Pittsburgh, Tampa absorbed a costly 4-2 loss to the Penguins. The Lightning lost star goaltender Ben Bishop to a lower-body injury. He finished out the first period and then gave way to veteran Evgeni Nabokov.

The game entered the first intermission tied at 1-1 after Jonathan Drouin scored a power play goal in the final half minute to cancel out a Brandon Sutter shorthanded goal moments earlier. Pittsburgh took control of the game in the second stanza and went on to build a 4-1 lead by the middle stages of the third period. Nikita Kucherov’s 12th goal of the season shaved Tampa’s final deficit.

There is also a potential fatigue factor for tonight’s game. The Flyers have been at home for nearly two weeks and have had two nights off since their last game. Tampa’s energy tank could run low as they play on the road for the third time in four nights and in the second half of back-to-back games.

None of these facets — Tampa’s recent down cycle, Bishop’s injury or the unfavorable schedule for the Lightning — guarantees a win for the Flyers. The Lightning remain a dangerous opponent under any circumstances. However, it does mean there are no excuses for Philly if they lose yet again because all of the potential factors that are out of the Flyers hands point in their favor heading into the game.

Regardless of fatigue and other recent issues, the Lightning enter tonight as one of the NHL’s two most potent offensive teams. They lead the NHL with 107 goals — Toronto is the only other team that has reached the 100-goal mark — and have the NHL’s fourth-best goals for/goals against ratio at even strength. The team attacks relentlessly and can put small mistakes in the back of the opposition’s net. Tampa also excels at bringing defensemen up on the rush as trailers, especially now that Victor Hedman is back in the lineup.

Over their first 32 games of the regular season, Tampa has had seven different players produce 16 or more points. Superstar center Steven Stamkos (17 goals, 34 points) leads the way, followed by Tyler Johnson (nine goals, 22 assists, 31 points), Kucherov (12 goals, 28 points) and Ryan Callahan (11 goals, 23 points in 27 games). Hedman has 13 points in 14 games, including three goals.

In addition to Bishop’s injury, Ondrej Palat is questionable for tonight with a lower-body injury.

Radko Gudas has been suffering from a stomach virus and is also questionable. Key team stat comparisons (NHL overall ranking)

Non-shootout goals per game: Flyers 2.72 (16th), Lightning 3.31 (2nd)

Non-shootout goals against per game: Flyers 2.86 (23rd), Lightning 2.59 (14th)

Even strength Goals For/Against Ratio: Flyers 0.98 (19th), Lightning 1.30 (4th)

Power play efficiency: Flyers 24.0% (T-3rd), Lightning 22.0% (9th)

Penalty killing efficiency: Flyers 74.0% (29th), Lightning 81.1% (16th)

Faceoff percentage: Flyers 51.7% (10th), Lightning 50.5% (T-12th) Projected lineups (Subject to change, will be updated)

FLYERS

12 Michael Raffl – 28 Claude Giroux – 93 Jakub Voracek

10 Brayden Schenn – 49 Scott Laughton – 17 Wayne Simmonds

18 R.J. Umberger – 14 Sean Couturier – 24 Matt Read

36 Zac Rinaldo – 78 Pierre-Edouard Bellemare – 76 Chris VandeVelde

5 Braydon Coburn – 55 Nick Schultz

8 Nicklas Grossmann – 32 Mark Streit

47 Andrew MacDonald – 22 Luke Schenn

35 Steve Mason

[29 Ray Emery]

Scratches: Michael Del Zotto (healthy), Carlo Colaiacovo (healthy), Vincent Lecavalier (healthy), Ryan White (IR, torn pectoral muscle, practicing with the team).

LIGHTNING

51 Valtteri Filppula – 91 Steven Stamkos – 24 Ryan Callahan

17 Alex Killorn – 9 Tyler Johnson – 86 Nikita Kucherov

27 Jonathan Drouin – 13 Cedric Paquette – 23 J.T. Brown

10 Brenden Morrow – 11 Brian Boyle – 14 Brett Connolly

77 Victor Hedman – 6 Anton Strålman

8 Mark Barberio – 25 Matt Carle

5 Jason Garrison – 62 Andrej Sustr

20 Evgeni Nabokov

Scratches: Ben Bishop (lower body injury), Ondrej Palat (lower body), Radko Gudas (stomach virus).

******** PETER FORSBERG NIGHT

Although he will always be most closely tied to the Colorado Avalanche, Peter Forsberg was a pivotal figure — both by choice and unwittingly — in the history of the Flyers’ franchise. Over on the Flyers Alumni official site, I took an in-depth look at the player’s surprise selection in the 1991 NHL Draft, the trading of his rights in the Eric Lindros deal with Quebec and Forsberg’s much-belated and somewhat frustrating — but still frequently brilliant — stint with the Flyers.

I have posted the videos below previously, but they are worth another look.

The first is TSN’s coverage of the 1991 Draft, which shows how no other team in the NHL except the Flyers believed he was worth an early first-round pick. It is also notable in retrospect for how halting and poor an 18-year-old Forsberg’s English was back then compared to the virtually unaccented and native-speaker caliber English he would come to speak.

The second video looks at the incredible chemistry that Forsberg had with Flyers linemate Simon Gagne. People forget that Forsberg led the NHL in scoring — 39 points in 21 games — at the time he got injured over Thanksgiving weekend of 2005; after which time, he was never close to fully healthy again in his career. At that same juncture, Gagne had a staggering 21 goals in 21 games.

The final video looks at what I personally consider the greatest playoff shift I have ever witnessed by one Flyers player — even better than several memorable shifts by Eric Lindros or Claude Giroux or Mike Richards. On this sequence, Forsberg goes one-on-five against the Buffalo Sabres and turns it into a mismatch as he stickhandles into and then all the way around the offensive zone, draws multiple Sabres toward him and then feeds a wide open Eric Desjardins for a momentum-changing goal in Game 4 of the 2006 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.

Forsberg’s chronic foot problems contributed to frequent groin and abdominal muscle pulls and ultimately ended his career after doctors tried multiple surgeries, and trainers tried several dozen different orthopedic inserts, skate re-designs and a variety of compensatory exercise regimens. However, he was still a dominant player during his brief time as a Flyer.

How dominant? Here’s a look at the Flyers’ all-time point-per-game leaders among players who played 100 or more games as a Flyer:

1. Eric Lindros 1.36

2. Peter Forsberg 1.15

3. Tim Kerr 1.08

4. Brian Propp 1.07

5. Bobby Clarke 1.06

My favorite personal story with Forsberg during his stint with the Flyers happened in Nov. 2006. He had just been chosen as Sweden’s greatest player of all-time by the Swedish Ice Hockey Federation and a friend of mine, Konstantin Foussianis, was selected to write an accompanying magazine article.

Konstantin asked if I would be the photographer for the article. Even though I generally take lousy pictures, I agreed. Some of the photos actually turned out really nice and I got my first — and only — published photography credit from it.

Most of the interview took place over lunch after practice in Voorhees. We went to a nearby Italian restaurant. The staff strategically seated us so that Peter could not be seen by passers-by in the window or as they just walked into the restaurant. Although a few patrons in the restaurant stared at the famed hockey star, no one came over to bother him.

Peter answered all of Konstantin’s questions. Afterwards, the three of us just chatted for about 25 minutes, both about hockey and a variety of other topics. I told him I would soon be going to his hometown of Örnsköldvik to visit an old friend (Martin Sedin) and take in a Modo-Färjestad during an off-day in the World Junior Championships in Leksand and Mora.

That discussion dovetailed into talking about his involvement in a golf course/ country club in Övik and a hotel project in his hometown. Peter then talked about the city of Philadelphia and his off-the-ice interest in real estate development. He knew where all the trendy investment areas were in Philly and elsewhere and said he had some ideas on where the next hot spots might be.

In the meantime, Peter’s cell phone went off about a half dozen times. He apologized for the interruptions and silenced his phone. I found that to be a very gracious gesture for such a busy person with so many irons in the fire.

During the latter part of the discussion, the talk turned back to the Flyers and then to the differences in officiating between the NHL and Swedish league. I said to Peter that I think he’d greatly improved his relationship with officials over the years, and I didn’t think anything such as the infamous 1994 playoff incident with referee Börje Johansson — in which an enraged Forsberg told a post-game interviewer on live television that he wished he could punch Johansson — would happen with Foppa anymore. He had matured and calmed down a lot over the years.

Forsberg agreed.

The very next night, Nov. 2, 2006, the Flyers had a home game against Tampa. The Bolts won, 5-2. With the Flyers on the way to their worst season in franchise history and Foppa frustrated with his ongoing foot problems, he erupted at a couple of questionable calls.

By the time the night was done, Foppa earned himself a pair of unsportsmanlike conduct penalties and eventually got dumped from the game on a 10-minute misconduct in the waning minutes of the third period.

Peter left the building without making himself available to the media. The next day at practice, however, his eye caught mine as the local media filed into the locker room. He knew what I was thinking: “About that conversation on referees the other day…”

“Shhh!” he said, putting his index finger to his mouth. “Don’t say a word.”

He shook his head and grinned slightly. Then he went about his usual round of interviews.

******** FLYERS HOLIDAY TOY DRIVE

In conjunction with the Salvation Army, the Flyers are holding a gameday holiday toy drive to benefit less fortunate children and teens in the Delaware Valley.

Flyers fans attending tonight’s are asked to bring along donations of new, unwrapped toys for ages infant to 14 years old. Collection bins for donations will be available at all arena entrances. Tomorrow, Flyers players along with Flyers wives and girlfriends, will deliver all donated toys to the Salvation Army of Greater Philadelphia, Foster Care Center in Bala Cynwyd, PA.

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