If you are a Flyers fan, and most of you are if you are reading this newsletter, you might not like what I have to say next: The Pittsburgh Penguins are an amazing, driven group of players.
I know. I know. You hate the archrival Penguins and Sidney Crosby as much as Eagles fans despise the Dallas Cowboys and Seattle defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.
You can hate the Penguins, but you can also admire them. That’s because they have been amazingly good despite losing star center Evgeni Malkin for a month and megastar Crosby for 28 games with injuries ... and somehow never skipping a beat.
Both are now back in Pittsburgh’s lineup, which isn’t good news for the Flyers, who will host the Penguins on Tuesday night. If the Flyers don’t bring their "A" game, it could turn ugly, as it did Oct. 29 in Pittsburgh, when the Penguins ripped the visiting Flyers, 7-1.
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— Sam Carchidi (firstname.lastname@example.org)
This will be the Flyers’ last game before their nine-day break, so they obviously want to go into their vacation feeling good about themselves.
To do that, they must contain Crosby, whose whining to the officials throughout the years (not to mention how he torches the Flyers) has made him Public Enemy No. 1 at the Wells Fargo Center.
Crosby didn’t make Flyers fans happy when he answered a question I asked him back in the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs. His answer went viral, and even started a cottage T-shirt industry.
In Game 3 of the Flyers’ 8-4 playoff win over the Penguins in 2012, Crosby, then 24, went out of his way to antagonize Flyers winger Jake Voracek during the first period. Voracek’s glove had fallen off during one of the several scrums in that game. Another scrum erupted after Crosby reached around a player and knocked away Voracek’s glove just as he was going to pick it up.
After the game, Crosby was asked if the move was stirred by his frustration.
“I don’t like any guy on their team,” he said. “His glove was near me and he went to pick it up, so I pushed it. I don’t like him.”
Any particular reason?
“Because I don’t like him,” he replied. “I don’t like any guy on their team.”
That spurred the Flyers’ marketing department, in an act much more creative than their Rage Room, to hand out orange shirts before the next game that read, Guess what? We don’t like you either!
Ah, the good ol’ days.
In 102 career games against the Flyers, Crosby has 42 goals — the most he has scored against any NHL team — and 60 assists for 102 points. Yeah, he’s pretty good.
Amazingly, the Penguins went 18-6-4 this season while Crosby was sidelined after core-muscle surgery, giving them an NHL-leading .714 points percentage over that span. Those 18 wins included a Western Conference road trip in which they swept Vegas, Colorado, and Arizona.
Crosby, 32, returned to the lineup Jan. 14 and looked a little, ahem, rusty, collecting just four points in his first game back, a 7-3 win over Minnesota. He had goals in each of his first three games after he returned.
But even if the Flyers are somehow able to contain Crosby, it won’t matter unless they can find a way to beat goaltender Tristan Jarry (2.16 GAA, .929 save percentage), the Penguins’ likely starter Tuesday. Jarry has been, in a word, sensational.
With Carter Hart still sidelined by an abdominal injury, Brian Elliott (3.03 GAA, .901 save percentage) ) will get the call for the Flyers. In his career against the Penguins, Elliott is 8-4-2 with a 3.19 GAA and .911 save percentage.
“They’ve been playing really good hockey without Crosby, and now he’s back, so he’s another weapon in their arsenal,” Elliott said. “We just have to play a good home game and stay connected. The big thing with a lot of our games is that we’re supporting each other throughout the ice and making those five, 10-foot passes and not spreading too far out. I think that’s what breaks the puck out of our zone cleanly and gets it into the other one. It’s going to be really important against these guys.”
When the break ends and the Flyers return to action Jan. 31, they’ll get to play the Penguins again, this time in Pittsburgh. The hope is that Hart returns for that game.
If the Flyers are going to make the playoffs, and win their first postseason series since 2012, the play of Hart will be the most important factor. They have 33 games remaining, and Hart is expected to play in a vast majority of them.
Here are some links to stories that give this rivalry — and the Flyers season — some context:
If the Flyers get into the playoffs — their final 33 games will determine their fate — here’s some good news: They have feasted on Eastern Conference opponents, compiling an 18-6-4 record.
Twenty-four of their last 33 games are against the East.
There are a lot of moving parts, of course, but if the Flyers finished as the second wild card, they would probably face Washington or Boston in the first round. They are 2-0 against the Bruins and 1-0-1 against the Capitals.
Based on last season, the Flyers need 39 points in the last 33 games to reach the playoffs. With the travel portion of their schedule easing up considerably, that’s certainly doable, but they need some of their veterans such as James van Riemsdyk and Claude Giroux to continue the momentum they built with Saturday’s 4-1 win over Los Angeles. They also need Hart, assuming he is healthy, to assert himself the rest of the way.
Tonight: Pittsburgh at Flyers, 7:30 p.m. (NBCSN)
Saturday: All-Star Game, at St. Louis, 8 p.m. (NBC)
Friday, Jan. 31: Flyers at Pittsburgh, 7 p.m. (NBCSP)
Saturday, Feb. 1: Colorado at Flyers, 7 p.m. (NBCSP+)
Monday, Feb. 3: Flyers at Detroit, 7:30 p.m. (NBCSP+)
Thursday, Feb. 6: New Jersey at Flyers, 7 p.m. (NBCSP)
Monday, Feb. 24: Trade deadline, 3 p.m.
Mike Mazzarella asked if the Flyers should trade Shayne Gostisbehere when he returns from a knee injury. He said Robert Hagg needs to stay in the lineup, and noted that Mark Friedman held his own when he was here.
Answer: Thanks for the question, Mike. Gostisbehere has been in the rumor mill since last summer, and if he proves he’s 100% healthy after he returns, I wouldn’t be surprised if GM Chuck Fletcher put out feelers because he’s a player who could bring back a very useful forward.
You make a good point that Friedman looked very serviceable in his brief stint with the Flyers, and that Hagg has been solid. That said, Gostisbehere has lots of upside and I wouldn’t deal him unless they received a player who can help them in the long run — and not just this season.