Bill Meltzer: Flyers Gameday: 12/18/14 vs. FLA, Phantoms, Alumni

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PREVIEW: FLYERS VS. PANTHERS

Looking to close out a four-game homestand with three wins, the Philadelphia Flyers (11-14-5) play host to the pesky Florida Panthers (13-8-8) at the Wells Fargo Center on Thursday night. Game time is 7:00 p.m. EST. The game will be televised on CSN Philadelphia.

This is the third and final meeting between the teams this season.

On Nov. 1 in Sunrise, the Flyers narrowly avoided getting shut out but still went down to a 2-1 defeat in regulation. Five nights later in Philadelphia, the Flyers jumped out to quick 2-0 lead and went on to win, 4-1. The Panthers were riddled with injuries at the time of both games.

Tonight’s game marks both the end of the Flyers’ homestand and the start of a gauntlet of three games in three cities in four nights. On Saturday, the Flyers will be in Toronto to take on the Maple Leafs. The following night, they are in Manitoba to play the Winnipeg Jets. The pre-Christmas break (three-night schedule break) portion of the season-high eight game road trip ends with a game in St. Paul against the Minnesota Wild next Tuesday.

After tonight’s game, the Panthers have a home-and-home against the Pittsburgh Penguins, playing in western Pennsylvania on Saturday and rematching in Sunrise next Tuesday. The Panthers then remain home through New Year’s Eve. Flyers outlook

The Flyers have generally played better hockey of late but are coming off a frustrating 3-1 home loss on Tuesday against a Tampa Bay Lightning club that was playing the final game of three road games in four nights and the second half of back-to-back games. It was a tight-checking and low-energy affair without much emotion or entertainment value.

Philly scored first in the game on a late first-period power play goal by Wayne Simmonds. Thereafter, the Flyers gave up a pair of early second period goals and a late-game empty netter to lose their sixth straight game against the Bolts.

If the Flyers had not already dug themselves a deep hole in the Eastern Conference and Metropolitan Division standings, Tuesday’s loss could be more easily shrugged off as just one of those nights where a winnable game got away. The Flyers have had too many of those nights this season. In a league in which parity reigns, the teams that consistently win the tossup games are the ones that make the playoffs.

Philadelphia is 3-5-3 over its last 11 games and 4-9-3 over the last 14. Even with a 3-0-2 stretch heading into Tuesday’s loss, that’s not even close to acceptable.

However, with the exception of Tuesday’s game, 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, 27 assists, 35 points) produce in a given game.

Simmonds, who leads the club with 14 goals and eight power play goals among his 22 points, has five goals and six points in his last six games. Sean Couturier had a six-game point streak (three goals, four assists, seven points) snapped on Tuesday.

The Flyers held an optional practice on Wednesday. Eight skaters plus goaltenders Steve Mason and Ray Emery participated.

After practice, Flyers head coach Craig Berube indicated that Mason would “probably” get the start tonight against the Panthers. The defense corps will remain the same, with Michael Del Zotto and Carlo Colaiacovo sitting out as healthy scratches.

Most notably, Berube strongly hinted that Vincent Lecavalier might return to the lineup after being a healthy scratch for seven straight games. The coach said Lecavalier would play center, get some power play time and, ideally, a little more five-on-five ice time than he got in the last couple games before he got scratched.

Forward Ryan White (torn pectoral muscle) is close to being ready to make his Flyers debut after missing training camp and the entire season to date. He has been practicing in full with the team for a week. Panthers outlook

The Panthers enter tonight’s game coming off an NHL record-setting 20-round shootout against the Washington Capitals on Tuesday. Florida ultimately got the bonus point from the marathon skills competition after playing to a 1-1 tie through 65 minutes of hockey.

Tuesday’s game was the Cats’ lone home game in a stretch that will see the club play five of six matches on the road. That stretch will end on Saturday in Pittsburgh. Thus far, the Panthers are 1-1-1 in the away games.

The Panthers are a low-scoring team but they have posted a winning record by playing strong team defense and getting good goaltending. The club ranks in the top one-third of the NHL in goals against average. This has offset the team’s goal scoring problems. Florida ranks 27th among the NHL’s 30 teams in scoring.

Having already played Florida twice since the start of November, the Flyers say they know full well what to expect from this game. Berube said that, while it is always ideal to score first, playing from ahead against a club like Florida — which protects leads very well but struggles when forced to chase the game — is even more important.

Berube said he saw signs of frustration creeping into his Flyers team on Tuesday after a couple of power play opportunities went awry. The coach said that cannot happen, and that the team needs to ready for another tight-checking game when the Panthers are in town.

Flyers captain Claude Giroux said yesterday that there is some preparation benefit to having played a team as often as Philly has played Florida over the last month. The team’s tendencies are still fresh in mind. However, this is a two-way street.

Nick Bjugstad, who scored the game-winning goal in his second turn during Tuesday’s shootout (shootout goals do not count in players’ season scoring statistics), leads the Panthers with 12 goals an 19 points in 29 games. Meanwhile, rookie defenseman Aaron Ekblad looks like a budding franchise player. He has five goals and 18 points to go along with a plus-six at even strength. Goaltender Roberto Luongo has posted a 2.30 goals against average and .925 save percentage in 23 starts.

Florida is a much healthier team now than when the Flyers last saw them. Currently, the only reported injury is enforcer Shawn Thornton’s groin injury. Thornton is on injured reserve. Key team stat comparisons (NHL overall ranking)

Non-shootout goals per game: Flyers 2.67 (16th), Panthers 2.17 (27th)

Non-shootout goals against per game: Flyers 2.87 (T-23rd), Panthers 2.45 (9th)

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

Power play efficiency: Flyers 24.3% (T-3rd), Panthers 13.5% (25th)

Penalty killing efficiency: Flyers 75.0% (29th), Panthers 80.2% (20th)

Faceoff percentage: Flyers 51.6% (9th), Panthers 49.2% (19th) 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 – 40 Vincent Lecavalier – 78 Pierre-Edouard Bellemare

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), Chris VandeVelde (healthy), Ryan White (IR, torn pectoral muscle, practicing with the team).

PANTHERS

11 Jonathan Huberdeau -27 Nick Bjugstad – 14 Tomas Fleischmann

20 Sean Bergenheim – 16 Aleksander Barkov – 24 Brad Boyes

36 Jussi Jokinen – 63 Dave Bolland – 12 Jimmy Hayes

82 Tomas Kopecky – 17 Derek MacKenzie – 19 Scottie Upshall

51 Brian Campbell – 5 Aaron Ekblad

33 Willie Mitchell – 7 Dmitry Kulikov

44 Erik Gudbranson – 4 Dylan Olsen

1 Roberto Luongo

[35 Al Montoya]

Scratches: Brandon Pirri (healthy), Vincent Trochek (healthy), Shawn Thornton (IR, groin).

******** RECORD-SETTING WIN FOR PHANTOMS

The Lehigh Valley Phantoms shattered an AHL record last night, scoring three goals in the first 36 seconds of the game and going on to defeat the Binghamton Senators, 5-3, on Wednesday night at the PPL Center in Allentown.

Just 15 seconds after the opening faceoff, Petr Straka scored his seventh goal of the season. Twelve seconds later, Jason Akeson potted his third goal since being reassigned to the AHL by the Flyers. Nine seconds after the ensuing center ice faceoff, Andrew Gordon scored. Brandon Manning assisted on both the Akeson and Gordon tallies.

Gordon got the primary assist on Akeson’s goal. Mark Alt got the secondary assist on the Gordon goal. Defenseman Steven Delisle, who collected a neutral zone turnover and passed the puck ahead to Straka, got the lone assist on the opening goal of the barrage.

Later in the game, Nick Cousins tallied second and third period power play goals to round out the scoring for Lehigh Valley. Defenseman Robert Hägg, who will soon take a leave of absence from the team to play for Team Sweden at the 2015 World Junior Championships, assisted on both Cousins goals. The two tallies marked the first multi-goal game of second-year pro Cousins’ AHL career.

Winning goaltender Rob Zepp saw a lot of rubber flying his way after Lehigh Valley’s opening-minute onslaught. He finished with 41 saves on 44 shots.

With the win, the Phantoms improved their season record to 12-10-4. The Phantoms host arch-rival Hershey on Friday.

********** FLYERS ALUMNI NEWS FROM FlyersAlumni.org

* On Dec. 19 and 20th, the Flyers Alumni will work in conjunction with St. John’s Hospice and Cityteam respectively to help the less fortunate during the holiday season. For more information about these programs, click here.

* On Dec. 28, the Flyers Alumni will play the Cherokee Chiefs Alumni in the Sixth Annual Jeff Burd Memorial Alumni Game benefit at the Skate Zone in Voorhees, NJ. One hundred percent of the proceeds will go to support the Jeff Burd Memorial Fund (a donation and matching-fund award for the Chiefs’ player with the highest academic performance in school to use toward college expenses), the National Meningitis Association, USA Wounded Warriors and Wings of Steel Sled Hockey. For more information about donating to, sponsoring or attending the Alumni game or after-party, contact Scott McKay at 609-377-6866 or RowdyMAX@aol.com.

* On January 10, the Flyers Alumni will play a charity game in Aston, PA.

* On January 17, 2015, the Flyers Alumni team will participate in the Center for Autism 3rd Annual Winter Classic benefit game in Aston, PA. Related events include a silent auction and postgame meet-and-greet and autograph session with Flyers Alumni players.

* The Flyers Alumni website takes a look at father-son connection that former Flyers left winger Simon Gagne and ailing father Pierre have to the Flyers organization.

* The first Flyers Alumni: Then and Now feature takes an in-depth look the career and post-hockey life of Legion of Doom right winger Mikael Renberg. Shortly after the New Years, the second feature in the series will look at LCB Line right winger Reggie “the Riverton Rifle” Leach.

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