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Penguins vs. Flyers Preview. Geno is lighting it up

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There never have been any doubts, but Evgeni Malkin is in a really, really special time right now

Pittsburgh Penguins v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Have you seen the stats since January 1st? You should probably take a look.

Evgeni Malkin has 46 points in his last 27 games. 23 goals and 23 assists. He’s crushing it right now. Those 46 points are more than the leading scorers of the Montreal Canadiens and Arizona Coyotes (sorry, Tocc) have for ALL SEASON.

Sidney Crosby is t-3rd in points in 2018 but no one is even talking about him right now, and rightfully so because this stretch from Malkin is about the best hockey he has ever played. He might not get to 50 goals again like he did once, and he’s still four points behind Nikita Kucherov for the Art Ross race and three goals behind Ovechkin for the Richard race so Malkin might not even win any major individual hardware. But make no mistake, #71 is far and away the league’s best played these past few months and if he stays that way for the next few months, the Pittsburgh Penguins will look almost unbeatable in a playoff series.

***

Speaking of playoffs, tonight’s game is a big one, folks. The Pens travel to Philly to play the Flyers. With the Capitals getting shutout last night in Anaheim, there are (temporary) first place implications on the line tonight!

It’s likely that of these three teams, two of them are gonna be in the 2 vs 3 matchup in the Metro. Will it be Flyers/Pens? Caps/Pens? Flyers/Caps? Remains to be seen as the teams jockey over the last ~15 games of the season. But this race is, IMHO, the best argument for this zany playoff format. Sure sometimes it is unbalanced and the best teams play too early, but at least the very best matchups are there. Either way hockey fans are bound to get a dynamic and hateful first round playoff matchup.

Basics

Who: Pittsburgh Penguins (38-25-4) @ Philadelphia Flyers (34-21-11)

When: 8:00 PM ET

SBN Friends: Broad Street Hockey

How to Watch: Nationally the game is on NBC Sports, for Rivalry Wednesday, thus the later than normal start time.

Previous Meetings: Sidney Crosby scored in OT back on 11/27 to give the Pens a 5-4 win in the first matchup of the year in Pittsburgh. Then on January 2nd the Pens LAYETH THE SMACKETH DOWN to the tune of a 5-1 win in Philly. This is the last reg season trip of the year @PHI, the teams will meet one more time this season in Pittsburgh on Sunday March 25th.

First, the good guys

Seems pretty business as usual for the Pens after two straight OT wins. Everyone expected to practice did yesterday.

Even though Pittsburgh got the W vs Calgary, there were still some coachable moments for Mike Sullivan to impart. You can tell it is about the time of year when the Pens need to tighten up and get some better defensive focus and attention to detail so it will be very interesting to see how and if the group responds to the message that the coaches have given post-Calgary game.

All of what Sullivan says, as usual, makes a lot of sense. The matter has surely been addressed by the staff now we look to see how the players will perform and execute. Based on feel, they usually seem to respond pretty well when messages like this are sent, so hopefully it will translate to a good game tonight for the visiting Pens.

No word on the starting goalie at press time, but Tristan Jarry (a solid 35 stops on 38 shots last game) probably should be in the net for this third straight start. Also worth noting that Jarry played in the 5-1 win in January in Philly so even though he’s young, venturing into a game like this isn’t going to be a new experience.

The road ahead: Even though this is the first of two games on the road, the Pens are actually flying back to Pittsburgh after this game. They have a scheduled day off tomorrow, practice at Lemieux UPMC on Friday and then fly to Toronto for a marquee Saturday night Hockey in Canada matchup against the Maple Leafs. Then it’s a quick turn back to Pittsburgh to host the Dallas Stars on Sunday night.

Opponent Focus

The Flyers, if nothing else, are an interesting team. The famously lost 10 straight earlier this season, albeit some in OT/SO, so it didn’t torpedo their season. They’ve also been getting great results of late, going 18-7-3 in the 2018 calendar portion of the season (almost identical to the Pens 19-7-1 mark).

Philly has a pretty good power play (north of 22% in recent months) but at 75.1% on the season their PK ranks among the bottom of the league. Mouths start watering in Pittsburgh to see a weak PK group just waiting to get picked on, so a game with lots of special teams play likely favors the Pens on paper.

Expected lines

From practice yesterday

—The Flyers will welcome back Wayne Simmonds tonight. Simmonds has missed the last seven games with an undisclosed “upper body injury”. Interesting stat from the Courier Post Online:

Since Simmonds got hurt in Feb. 18’s game against the New York Rangers, the Flyers have 13 goals at 5-on-5. Seven came from forwards, five from defensemen and only one from a forward on the bottom two lines.

I think it’s safe to say they missed him.

—Rookie Nolan Patrick started pretty slow in point production but is seeming to get his feet under him as the season has gone on. The 2017 #2 overall pick has 7 points (5g+2a) in the last 9 games. Overall in his rookie campaign he has 20 points (10g+10a) in 57 games.

—Fans have been excited about 21-year old prospect Oscar Lindbolm who was called up a couple weeks ago for his first taste of NHL action but he hasn’t made much of an impact yet with no points in 7 games.

Sean Couturier continues a career year with 63 points in 66 games so far, but he only has scored 3 goals in the last 21 games (though he does have 14 assists in that span).

Flyers defense was listed by the CPO as:

9-Ivan Provorov & 53-Shayne Gostisbehere

8-Robert Hagg & 47-Andrew MacDonald

23-Brandon Manning & 3-Radko Gudas

—They might be a little banged up, MacDonald recently returned from injury and the young Hagg missed practice yesterday with a maintenance day. Recent waiver wire pickup Johnny Oduya also has a pulled groin and is out.

In goal the Flyers are expected to play recent trade acquisition Peter Mrazek tonight and then rookie backup Alex Lyon tomorrow against Boston. Mrazek hasn’t started that great with Philly (3-2-1, 2.92 GAA, .895 save%) and has given up 4, 6 and 4 goals in his last three starts, all losses. Traditionally Mrazek is awful against Pittsburgh with a .890 save % and 4.02 GAA in 6 career starts against the Pens. All of those games, obviously, were when Mrazek was with his first team the Detroit Red Wings.

Keys to the Game

#1 Fast start

The Flyers have been prone of late to starting slow. Take this recap of their last game vs. Florida for instance from our friends at BSH

The Flyers had a rough first period. Through the first twenty minutes, they were only able to register two scoring chances, neither of which were high danger. Beyond this, by the eye, they showed signs of struggle to get completely set up, as they failed to establish sustained pressure in the offensive zone. They were left scrambling, trying to keep pace with Florida’s transition game. By the time we hit the first intermission, and saw the two goals allowed, the feeling of “here we go again” was palpable. And it’s perhaps wearisome to talk about, at this point--the Flyers have fallen victim to the slow starts and early scoring deficits time and again.

It’s common sense and always a goal on the road to get out to a great start for a better chance of winning, but here with an opponent who hasn’t been starting well as of late, it’s all the more critical.

To that end, the Flyers have only had a lead after 20 minutes 14 times this season. 22 times they have been trailing at first intermission. Pittsburgh isn’t too much better with 23 leads after 1 compared to 20 times being behind, however a big difference is what happens when the Pens start fast. Pittsburgh is 19-2-2 when leading after 20. It’s a 60 minute game, of course, but if the Pens are up after 1 it’s a pretty good indication that they will end up with a good result.

#2 Crush the Orange PK

As mentioned above the Flyers are one of the worst PK teams in the league. The Pens have the #1 power play in the league. It isn’t rocket science here either, get some man advantages and let the big guns operate. They’ll fill the net, the crowd will soak them in boos and we will rinse and repeat and laugh to another win over the Flyguys.

The biggest problem for Pittsburgh here might be getting the calls. The Pens only have 22 PP opportunities in their last 12 games. That’s a league-low over the last month. Which is a little weird since I’ve been told the Pens get all the calls but sometimes that’s the way it goes. Hopefully the refs were saving them up for this game.