Bill Meltzer: Flyers Gameday: 12/20/14 @ TOR; Stolarz Shines in Shutout

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PREVIEW: FLYERS VS. MAPLE LEAFS

Opening an eight-game road trip that will take the club into early January, the Philadelphia Flyers (11-14-6) are in Ontario to take on the Toronto Maple Leafs (19-10-3) on Saturday night. Game time is 7:00 p.m. EST. The game will be televised on CSN Philadelphia and on the CBC in Canada.

This is the first of three meetings between the teams this season.

They will rematch in Philadelphia on Jan. 31 and conclude the season series in Toronto on Feb. 26. Last season, the Flyers went 1-1-1 against the Leafs.

Saturday’s game is the middle portion of a three-in-four gauntlet for the Flyers and the front end of back-to-back game. On Sunday, the Flyer 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 on Tuesday.

After playing the Flyers, the Maple Leafs are also back in action on Sunday, traveling to Chicago to play the Blackhawks. On Tuesday, the Leafs will pay a visit to the American Airlines Center to oppose the Dallas Stars. Flyers outlook

The Flyers’ four-game homestand opened with convincing wins over the New Jersey Devils (4-1) and Carolina Hurricanes (5-1). They had points in five straight games (3-0-2) heading into the more difficult portion of the homestand.

Over the final two games, the Flyers struggled to battle through the tight checking of the Tampa Bay Lightining (3-1 loss with the final Tampa goal being a late empty netter) and Florida Panthers (2-1 loss via shootout).

The Flyers held a late-morning practice on Friday at the Skate Zone in Voorhees, NJ, prior to departing for Toronto. Starting goaltender Steve Mason, whose play has been one of the few bright spots on the team this season, went down with an apparent back injury.

Mason went down without contact and had to be helped off the ice in considerable pain after laying on his back on the ice. Early speculation is that the goalie suffered potential back spasms but that is not known for certain. The only official word from the Flyers is that Mason has an upper-body injury, will miss both games this weekend and will be re-evaluated on Monday.

Ray Emery will start on Saturday in Toronto and Sunday in Winnipeg. The club has recalled veteran Rob Zepp from the AHL’s Lehigh Valley Phantoms to serve as the backup.

Earlier this week, Flyers head coach Craig Berube said his team has to learn how to win low-scoring games if it wants to be successful. The Flyers have only won one 2-1 game this season. They do not own a 2-0 or 1-0 win to date but lost to the Islanders via shootout after a 0-0 tie through overtime.

The Flyers have lost 10 shootouts in a row, dating back to last season, and all five they have played so far during the 2014-15 campaign.

In Thursday’s game, Jakub Voracek scored Philadelphia’s lone goals both in regulation and the six-round shootout. Mason was excellent in making 31 saves on 32 shots during the hockey game. He had no chance on a pinballing rebound of a blocker save that went into the net off Florida forward Scottie Upshall as Upshall crashed the net. In the shootout, Mason stopped four of six.

Philadelphia is 3-5-4 over its last 12 games and 4-9-4 over the last 15. Even with a 3-0-2 stretch heading into Tuesday’s loss, that’s not even close to good enough for a team that insists it is capable of climbing back into the Eastern Conference playoff race.

Vincent Lecavalier returned to the Flyers’ lineup on Thursday after sitting out seven consecutive games as a healthy scratch. He skated on the right wing of the fourth line. Defenseman Michael Del Zotto was a healthy scratch throughout the homestand and is likely to remain out of the lineup for the time being.

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 over a week. Maple Leafs outlook

The Maple Leafs present a much different type of challenge than the Florida Panthers. who win by scratching out low-scoring victories. Toronto is often perfectly content — and effective — trading off scoring chances.

The Maple Leafs enter this game as the highest-scoring team in the NHL (3.38 goals per game) and rank seventh in even strength goal differential as well as 10th on the power play (20.5 percent efficiency). Toronto ranks in the bottom one-third of the league defensively with a 2.81 goals against per game — identical to the Flyers’ team GAA.

Toronto enters this game coming off a 4-1 loss to the lowly Carolina Hurricanes — another team that generally keeps the score low, but has not been nearly as good as Florida in actually winning such games. Perhaps the Maple Leafs did not take their opponent seriously enough after reeling off six straight wins, including wins over Los Angeles (4-3 via shootout), Anaheim (6-2) on the heels of a home-and-home sweep of Detroit.

The Maple Leafs have eight players who have tallied 16 or more points through the team’s first 32 games, including a half-dozen players with 20 or more points.

Phil Kessel leads the way with 17 goals and 34 points. Former Flyers left winger James van Riemsdyk is next with 28 points (13 goals, 15 assists). Tyler Bozak’s six power play tallies among his 12 goals leads the team in that category. Cody Franson leads the defense with five goals and 20 points.

On the injury front, Leo Komorov (concussion) and Roman Polak (lower-body) are both on injured reserve. Carter Ashton’s 20-game suspension for testing positive for a banned performance-enhancing substance is over and he is eligible to play. Key team stat comparisons (NHL overall ranking)

Non-shootout goals per game: Flyers 2.61 (17th), Maple Leafs 3.38 (1st)

Non-shootout goals against per game: Flyers 2.81 (T-21st), Maple Leafs 2.81 (T-21st)

Even strength Goals For/Against Ratio: Flyers 0.94 (20th), Maple Leafs 1.15 (7th)

Power play efficiency: Flyers 24.0% (5th), Maple Leafs 20.5% (10th)

Penalty killing efficiency: Flyers 75.5% (29th), Maple Leafs 83.5% (10th)

Faceoff percentage: Flyers 51.6% (T-10th), Maple Leafs 49.7% (15th) 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 – 40 Vincent Lecavalier

5 Braydon Coburn – 55 Nick Schultz

8 Nicklas Grossmann – 32 Mark Streit

47 Andrew MacDonald – 22 Luke Schenn

29 Ray Emery

[Rob Zepp]

Scratches: Steve Mason (back), Michael Del Zotto (healthy), Carlo Colaiacovo (healthy), Chris VandeVelde (healthy), Ryan White (IR, torn pectoral muscle, practicing with the team).

MAPLE LEAFS

21 James van Riemsdyk – 42 Tyler Bozak – 81 Phil Kessel

26 Daniel Winnik – 43 Nazem Kadri – 25 Mike Santorelli

19 Joffrey Lupul – 24 Peter Holland – 71 David Clarkson

20 David Booth – 23 Trevor Smith – 18 Richard Panik

3 Dion Phaneuf – 4 Cody Franson

44 Morgan Rielly – 12 Stephane Robidas

51 Jake Gardiner – 55 Korbinian Holzer

45 Jonathan Bernier / 34 James Reimer

Scratches: Carter Ashton (healthy), Leo Komorov (concussion), Roman Polak (IR, lower body).

********* PHANTOMS UPDATE: STOLARZ SHINE IN SHUTOUT

Rookie goaltender Anthony Stolarz, the Flyers’ second-round pick in the 2012 NHL draft, earned his second professional shutout as the Lehigh Valley Phantoms blanked the Hershey Bears, 2-0, at the PPL Center on Friday night.

The Phantoms were outshot by a 16-1 margin in the first period but Stolarz kept the match scoreless. For the game, Hershey enjoyed a 32-18 shot edge but could not solve Stolarz.

Jason Akeson scored both goals for the Phantoms. He broke the scoreless deadlock with a second period shorthanded goal and added an empty netter with one second remaining in the game.

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