The Flyers will play a meaningful game Wednesday at the Wells Fargo Center for the first time in a little over 10 months, opening their season against their pals from across the state, the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Because of COVID-19 restrictions, the building will be mostly empty — though two front-line workers and their family have been given permission to attend — but that doesn’t mean the hated rivals won’t be percolating with hard feelings.
“I do feel that physically and mentally we are ready to get the season going,” captain Claude Giroux said after the Flyers ended their training camp Tuesday in Voorhees. “It is always fun to play them. We are going to be playing them a lot this year, so why not get in a few games right away?”
The 5:30 p.m. matchup will be the eighth time in history — and the first time since Jan. 19, 2013 — that the teams have met in a mutual season opener. Each team is 3-3-1 in those seven meetings.
“I really like our focus,” coach Alain Vigneault said Tuesday. “If you watched practice today, our focus was good. Our attention to detail, the pace, the intensity. I like where our group is right now. We understand what we need to do as far as on-ice systems, and the fact that this is my second year and most of the guys were with me last year enables us to go into the season moving forward with the right mindset.”
The Flyers finished three points ahead of Pittsburgh last season, when they went 1-1-1 against their tormentor, Sidney Crosby, and the Penguins.
“It is our first game against one of the best teams in the league, so we are looking forward to it,” Vigneault said.
The Flyers will miss the play — and veteran presence — provided by defenseman Matt Niskanen, who surprisingly retired after last season. Justin Braun will replace Niskanen on Wednesday alongside Ivan Provorov on the top pairing
“Brauner brings a steady element to a duo,” Vigneault said. “You know that offensively he won’t be too flashy, but I think that could be a good pair as far as getting the puck out of our zone and playing some good hockey against some good competition. If you remember last year, the sixth game when we eliminated Montreal, Nisky was suspended. We put Brauner with Provy and we used him in more of a defensive role.”
In that game, the Flyers moved Shayne Gostisbehere with Provorov in offensive zone faceoffs, and they may do something similar — perhaps using Erik Gustafsson — in those types of situations Wednesday.
With no exhibition games, all teams will be a work in progress early in the season.
“I’m looking forward to see where our game is at,” Vigneault said. “Obviously, when you are playing against an opponent, they are finishing checks. The intensity is going to pick up. You scrimmage ... but you are playing against your teammates.”
On Wednesday, “in theory, you are playing against the enemy,” he added. “The enemy is coming, and they will be coming hard. I am looking forward to seeing where our game is in all facets — the offensive part, the defensive part and specialty teams.”
“We like our team and we feel pretty confident going against anyone in this league,” center Sean Couturier said, adding he thought the Flyers were just “OK” in last year’s playoffs and want to prove they can play better. “It’s just up to us to bring our ‘A’ game every night and compete hard and get some wins.”
The pandemic-shortened season will be a 56-game sprint to the finish line, with the top four teams in each division earning playoff berths.
“This year it is very different than other seasons,” said Giroux, who turned 33 on Tuesday. “You play every game against your own division, so every game is a four-point game. If you go down early, it will be hard to get back up in the standings. The start of the year is very important here.”