Bill Meltzer: Meltzer’s Musings: Road Trip, WJC, Flyers Alumni and More

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EIGHT CRAZY NIGHTS: FLYERS’ REMAINING ROAD TRIP IS GRUELING

The National Hockey League’s three-night break over Christmas is not excessively long — no one bats an eye at a two-night break in a team’s schedule — and may have come at a valuable time for the Philadelphia. While the team has won each of the first three games of its season-high eight-game road trip and has points in nine of the last 10 games (6-1-3), the Flyers probably could use the holiday respite before embarking on the remainder of the trip.

Starting tomorrow night in Nashville, the Flyers will play five games in eight nights. With the exception of the Predators, the Flyers’ remaining opponents on the road trip all have overall records of .500 or below. These are winnable games on paper.

That does not, however, make any of the upcoming games “easy” ones. Such an animal no longer exists in the National Hockey League. Each and every team the Flyers will play in the next week is eminently capable of beating Philly, who are themselves a .500 team.

Additionally, while the Flyers will play on an alternating-night basis for the first three games of the trip, the latter portion figures to become very taxing physically. Playing back-to-back games is manageable but three-in-four stretches where the final game of the stretch is the second half of a back-to-back is a tough challenge for any team regardless of the opponents involved.

The Flyers just navigated such as stretch successfully — winning on back-to-back nights in Toronto and Winnipeg — but now they’ll have to do it again. That’s why it’s probably a good thing the team is getting a three-night break before the five-in-eight across three time zones.

On paper, the toughest game of the upcoming stretch is tomorrow night’s game against the Predators. Not only will it be the first game Peter Laviolette will coach against the Flyers since being dismissed after three regular season games last season, the Predators team itself is well-suited to executing Laviolette’s system — which is geared toward aggressive puck pressure and rapid breakouts.

The Predators have been exceptionally fearsome on home ice this season. The club currently boasts a 12-2-1 record at home. Overall, the club is 22-9-2.

In their 33 games played through the Christmas break, the Predators rank second in the NHL in fewest goals allowed per game (2.09) and tops overall in five-on-five scoring differential (a ratio of 1.66 even strength goals scored to each one allowed).

The Predators’ special teams have been, well, nothing special: Their 11.3 percent success rate on the power play is 29th among the NHL’s 30 teams. The penalty kill (78.6 percent) is 22nd.

However, the Predators team has done a very good job of staying out of the penalty box this season. They have played shorthanded just 89 times this season; the fewest in the NHL. Thus, while the penalty killing percentage isn’t great, the bottom line is that opposing teams have scored 19 goals. In terms of volume of power play goals yielded, the Preds are tied for 11th.

Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne is having an outstanding season. A frequent runner-up for the Vezina Trophy, this could finally be Rinne’s season to win the award if he remains healthy. Rinne has not been pulled in any of his 29 starts to date and has posted a 1.84 goals against average, .934 save percentage and three shutouts.

During Barry Trotz’s long tenure as the Predators’ head coach, the team was rarely deep in offensive weapons. The team that Laviolette is coaching has seven players with 16 or more points in 33 games and three with double-digit goals.

Fast-rising young star Filip Forsberg leads the way with 13 goals, 32 points and a stellar plus-24 at even strength. Reclamation project center Mike Ribeiro remains a quality playmaker, tied with Forsberg for the team lead with 19 assists. Meanwhile, franchise defenseman Shea Weber has a half-dozen goals, 22 points and a plus-14 rating. Controversial former Dallas and Pittsburgh left wnger James Neal — a player with whom the Flyers are all-too-familiar from his Penguins years — has 11 goals and 21 points.

Predators general manager David Poile has always built his team from the back end out. That is still the case, even with the upgrades the team has made at forward. Even beyond Weber, the Preds’ blueline is stacked with fine two-way talents who boast good mobility. Roman Josi (four goals, 18 points, plus-12) would be the number one defenseman on the Flyers or many other NHL clubs. Meanwhile, the likes of the undersized but talented Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm and 20-year-old Seth Jones are a good supporting cast.

In short, it is not hard to see why the Predators have become one of the top teams in the NHL. With 46 points, they are two points behind Chicago for the top spot in the Central Division. The Preds currently hold two games in hand on the Blackhawks.

If the game tomorrow is tied after 65 minutes of hockey, the Predators hold an edge on Philly in a shootout. The Flyers’ struggles in shootouts have been well-documented (0-5 this season, 0-10 in the last 10 dating back to last season). Meanwhile, Nashville is 4-1 this season after going just 2-9 last year with Rinne injured for much of the season.

After the Flyers play the Preds, they will have one night off before playing the Arizona Coyotes. Dave Tippett’s team (12-18-4 overall, 5-8-3 at home) is not having a good season and has allowed an uncharacteristically high number of goals (112) for a squad that was heretofore known for playing a lot of low-scoring games. They have also struggled in December.

Nevertheless, the Coyotes have knocked off some good teams over the course of the season: Los Angeles, Toronto, Vancouver, San Jose, Washington are among the clubs with currently superior records to the Flyers whom Arizona has beaten this season.

The Flyers will have one night off between playing the Coyotes and spending New Years Eve in Denver playing the Colorado Avalanche. Patrick Roy’s team has come back down to earth this season after shocking the NHL a year ago. However, after a rough start, the Avs have pulled back to the .500 mark for the season. The Flyers beat the Avalanche in Philadelphia in early November, in a game that saw the Flyers hold a 4-0 lead in the third period and then lose three-quarters of it before barely hanging on to win.

The Colorado game is the start of a three-in-four stretch to end the road trip. The Flyers are off on New Year’s Day and then will play the Carolina Hurricanes and New Jersey Devils on back-to-back nights.

Heading into the eight-game road trip, the Flyers realistically needed to come away with 13 or 14 of a possible 16 points to significantly improve their chances of being a contender for a playoff spot in the East as the second half of the regular season approaches. That’s a mighty tall order for any team, regardless of the individual opponents. Any team in the NHL can beat any other team on a given night.

The Flyers currently have six points in the cash register for the road trip. If they can go 3-1-1 over the next eight nights, they’ll finish the trip with 13 points and a 6-1-1 record. That is doable but the Flyers will have to earn it.

********** WORLD JUNIOR CHAMPIONSHIPS GET UNDERWAY

The 2014-15 IIHF Under-20 World Championships — more popularly known in North America as the World Junior Championships — get underway today in Toronto and Montreal.

The Flyers will have three prospects participating. Samuel Morin (2013 first-round pick) will represent tournament host Canada. Lehigh Valley Phantoms defenseman Robert Hägg will represent Sweden’s Under-20 team for the third and final time. Meanwhile, 2014 fifth-round pick Oskar Lindblom will make his WJC debut. Here’s a look at today’s schedule:

* The first game of the day features Russia against Denmark at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre. Game time is 1 p.m. EST. The game will not be televised in the U.S. but there are online streams.

* 2012-13 tournament gold medalist USA takes on 2013-14 champion Finland at 3:00 p.m. EST. The game from Montreal’s Bell Centre will be televised on NHL Network.

* Sweden plays the Czech Republic in Toronto at 5 p.m. EST. There is no television for this game in North America but the game will be available for online viewing.

* Team Canada faces Slovakia in Montreal at 8:00 p.m. EST. The game will be televised on NHL Network.

************ FLYERS ALUMNI NEWS FROM FLYERSALUMNI.ORG

* Members of the Flyers Alumni, including the likes of Brian Boucher, Bill Clement, Brian Propp, Bob “the Hound” Kelly and Don “Big Bird” Saleski, helped make the holiday season a little brighter for less fortunate members of our community. On Dec. 19, the Alumni traveled to St. John’s Hospice in Philadelphia to serve lunch to the homeless. The following day, in conjunction with the work of Cityteam, the Alumni delivered holiday toy donations to less fortunate families in Chester.

* This Saturday, Dec. 28, the Flyers Alumni will play the Cherokee Chiefs Alumni at the Skate Zone in Voorhees in the annual Jeff Burd Memorial. One hundred percent of the proceeds will go to support four charities:the Jeff Burd Memorial Fund, the National Meningitis Association, USA Wounded Warriors and Wings of Steel Sled Hockey. The benefit game at the Skate Zone will start at 3:40 p.m. and run until 5:10 p.m. There will be an after-party from 6:00 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Victory Bar and Grill in West Berlin, NJ. A $15 donation is requested for the Alumni Game, a $20 donation to the after-party or $30 for both.

* On Jan. 10, the Flyers Alumni will play a benefit game at the Ice Works in Aston, PA (home of five-time NHL All-Star defenseman Jimmy Watson). The game, pitting the Alumni against the Checkmates Charitable Association, will raise money for the fight against Ulceratve Colitis. Game time is 7:30 p.m. EST. More information is available here, on the event’s Facebook page and on the Checkmates website.

* On Jan 17, the Flyers Alumni return to the Ice Works for the Third Annual Center for Autism Winter Classic. Puck drop for the game game between the Flyers Alumni and the Autism Puzzlers will be at 7;30 p.m. with doors opening at 7:00. Ninety minutes prior to doors opening, at 5:30 p.m., day-of-event tickets will be available along with a silent auction. In addition to the silent auction, the Winter Classic activities will include a 50/50 raffle, a Chuck-a-Puck contest, and a postgame autograph signing & player meet & greet with the Flyers Alumni.

* Today in Flyers History: On Dec. 26, 1992, Eric Lindros scored on a penalty shot against Washington Capitals goaltender Don Beaupre with the third-period game clock stopped at 19 seconds remaining in regulation. The goal forged a 5-5 tie and completed the rookie’s second career hat trick. For more, click here.

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