Chicago Blackhawks (39-15-14) vs. Philadelphia Flyers (35-25-7)

March 18th, 2014 by Kyle Lutz | Filed under Flyers, General, Hockey, Sports.

(AP Photo)

(AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

The defending champion Blackhawks handily defeated the Flyers at home on December 11th 7-2 at the United Center, and now Philadelphia is seeking revenge on home ice. Philadelphia squares off against Jonathan Toews and Chicago tonight at 7:30 PM/EST on CSN Philly/NBCSN. In the 7-2 victory vs. Philadelphia earlier this season, seven different Blackhawks scored. Patrick Sharp had a goal and two assists against his former team, while Marian Hossa recorded three assists.

In the two team’s (only) previous match-up this season, Chicago not only won but scored an impressive five goals in the second period, taking a commanding 5-2 lead heading into the third period, one of which they tacked on an additional two goals on their way to victory. Philadelphia was struggling mightily at that time, roughly three months ago, at 13-15-3 (while Chicago at the time, only having one greater loss than amount of overtime losses, was fantastic, and still is, at 23-6-5)- although the former was still in contention at the time due to the Western Conference’s superiority in comparison to the East this season.

Fast-forward a few months later and Philadelphia is doing much better under now-interim (but perceived to be the full-time coach heading forward) head coach (and former Philadelphia enforcer) Craig Berube at 35-25-7. The Fly-Guys are 22-10-4 since the aforementioned 7-2 blowout loss to Chicago in mid-December. They come in tonight’s game with Chicago having won two straight, on a back-to-back game basis no less, both victories coming against rival Pittsburgh from Saturday to Sunday of last week. Since losing a close 2-1 game to New Jersey a week ago today, Philadelphia — starting four days later — shutout the Pens 4-0 at the Wells Fargo Center, before sweeping the home-and-home with a close 4-3 victory on Sunday at Pittsburgh.

The Broad Street Bullies come into tonight’s match-up having gone 3-1-1 in their last five, averaging over 3.5 goals and almost 33.5 shots/game in that time span. They’re 7-2-1 in their last 10 games, while Chicago is 5-5.

Right-winger Matt Read has three goals and a +3 rating in his past two contests, while captain and team leader/star Claude Giroux has at least one point in his past three games- compiling five points in that span of time (0 goals, 5 assists). This season, he’s been far too impressive, putting up 69 points in 67 games played (23 goals, 46 assists); good enough for (tied for) fourth in the league among qualifiers in assists. Giroux’s also in the top five/10 in the NHL this season in face-off wins (752) and power-play assists (23). His minutes have increased slightly this year compared to last year’s output (21:35 minutes/game, compared to 21:10 last year), and his confidence is souring with each passing point and victory.

Giroux’s play making abilities, leadership and overall presence has been one of the key factors, alongside goalie Steve Mason’s incredible performance(s) — among others — in the team’s progressive turnaround since their abysmal 1-7 start to the season, which led to former head coach Peter Laviolette’s subsequent firing. Philadelphia’s 34-18-7 since that rough 1-7 start.

 

Speaking of the team’s starting netminder, Steve Mason has appeared to return to form so far this year, after numerous less-than-stellar seasons (mostly) with Columbus and Philadelphia. Mason’s 28-16-6 this season in 52 games played, with a GAA (goals-against-average) of 2.57, a save percentage of .914, and four shutouts. He’s 5-1-1 in his past seven outings, with a 2.69 GAA and a save percentage of .905. He’s had better games this season compared to recently, but he’s held his own nonetheless, and — along with Giroux — has been arguably the team’s MVP this season based on how competitive and consistent he’s been. This is especially true considering how poor Philadelphia’s defense has been overall this year. Philadelphia doesn’t play again for a couple of nights, thus Emery will get the nod tonight over Mason, so that the latter can get some well-deserved rest.

On the flip side, Corey Crawford has been absolutely stellar this season, all things considered. Sure, he plays in front of (arguably) a much better defense than Mason does, but he’s more than held his own regardless of who’s been good or bad. Crawford’s ranked in/around the top 10 among qualifying NHL leading goalies in multiple goaltending categories this season, including: GAA, wins and OTL/SL (10; which he currently leads the league in). In his past six contests, he’s 4-2 with a miraculous GAA of 1.44 (allowing one goal a game in four out of the six contests).

Having Duncan Keith in front of you for a third of the game doesn’t hurt either. Neither does having two-time NHL All-Star Brent Seabrook, as well as Johnny Oduya defensively speaking.

(AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Win-loss records

Chicago- 39-15-14 (92 points)- (18-9-7 on the road)- 3rd in Central Division/5th in Western Conference
Philadelphia- 35-25-7 (77 points)- (19-12-1 at home)- 2nd in Metropolitan Division/6th in Eastern Conference

Depth Charts

Chicago

Versteeg-Toews-Hossa
Bickell-Handzus-Kane
Sharp-Shaw-Regin
Bollig-Kruger-Smith

Keith-Seabrook
Oduya-Hjalmarsson
Leddy-Rozsival

Raanta-Crawford

Philadelphia

Hartnell-Giroux-Voracek
Lecavalier-Schenn-Simmonds
Read-Couturier-Downie
Rinaldo-Hall-Raffl

Coburn-Timonen
Streit-Grossmann
MacDonald-Schenn

Emery-Mason

Injury Report

Chicago

Brandon Saad- Day-to-day (March 17th)- Upper-body injury
Nikolai Khabibulin- IR (Nov. 17th)- Groin/torn right rotator cuff surgery

Philadelphia

Chris Pronger- IR (Sept. 11th)- Post-concussion syndrome
Marc-Andre Bourdon- IR (Sept. 11th)- Post-concussion syndrome

Goals For/Against/Goal Differential (League rankings noted in parenthesis)

Chicago: Goals For-  231 (1st)- Fewest Goals Against- 179 (12th)– Goal Differential- +52 (3rd)
Philadelphia: GF-    192 (15th)- GA- 193 (17th)- GD- -1 (14th)

Starting Goaltenders (W-L-OT- GAA- SV%- SO)

Chicago- Antti Raanta (12-3-3- 2.44- .904- 1)
Philadelphia- Ray Emery (7-9-1- 3.03- .898- 1)

Both backups will start in net for their respective teams, due to fatigue and lack of rest in Mason’s case (with three games in four days), and Raanta starting due to a back-to-back (with the latter game against St. Louis no less) schedule scenario for Chicago, with Crawford presumably starting in tomorrow night’s game vs. the superior opponent of the two.

Despite facing (not only his former team but) a very strong, all-around team tonight in Chicago, Emery needs the work considering Mason’s played in over 70% of the contests this year. Emery hasn’t been as solid as he’s been in recent history, having a below-average season thus far, due to a lack of rebound control, (partially due to a) lack of playing time and plain ole inefficiency. This is Ray’s first start since February 27th; almost three weeks ago. That’s partially due to a groin injury that he sustained last week that kept him out of action for a few games. In the team’s only previous match-up thus far this year, Emery was the starter; not for long, as he got pulled in favor of Mason halfway through the game after allowing six Blackhawk goals on 18 shots. The former will look to rebound with a strong effort at home tonight vs. his former team. Last season with Chicago he went 17-1, prior to co-winning the NHL’s William M. Jennings Trophy (along with Crawford), for fewest team goals allowed, at the end of the season.

Raanta stopped 26 of 29 shots in a 3-2 loss to the Avalanche on Wednesday. Raanta has been great when called upon this season, but with Corey Crawford playing as a top-10 goalie, Raanta has not seen much action as of late. He recorded the W in his first start vs. Philly, but all three of his regulation losses have come on the road this season (5-3-1 / 3.11 / .885).

Chicago left-winger Brandon Saad is out for tonight’s game after suffering an upper-body injury in Sunday’s game vs. Detroit. He didn’t make the team trip to Philadelphia last night and is listed as day-to-day. Saad is sixth on the team with 44 points (19 goals, 25 assists) and is tied for sixth in the league with a +29 rating.

(AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Philadelphia, starting with tonight’s game, will begin a four-game homestand that will span less than a week before they head out on the road again in late Mafrch to face the division rival New York Rangers, the latter of which is trailing Philadelphia by a point in the standings despite playing two greater games (69 to 67). Three points separate four teams, including Philadelphia (who’s ahead of the respective pack), in the Metropolitan Division currently, with New Jersey not far behind with only six fewer points than Philadelphia coming into today.

(AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

As for Chicago and the West’s Central Division, Colorado is a point ahead of the former in the standings (93 points to 92), while both chase division leading St. Louis by almost double-digit points.

Philadelphia is coming off a solid, consistent February in which they went 9-2-1. Head coach Craig Berube appears to see the transformation and improvements in the team himself since the start of the season. The two back-to-back victories against division-leading Pittsburgh only helped the team’s confidence going forward.

“I think our team will get confidence from this,” coach Craig Berube said. “Anytime you come in and you can beat Pittsburgh twice, it’s a big boost.”

(AP Photo/Pittsburgh)

Special teams were a huge factor in the two victories against the Penguins, as they went 3/7 (42.8%) on the man advantage, and a perfect 9/9 on the penalty kill; vs. the best power play team efficiency wise this season no less.

Since Feb. 1, the team’s power play units have converted 24.4 percent of their chances, while the PK has been just as solid at 87.0 percent.

“The power play was good again, the penalty kill was good again,” Berube said after Sunday’s win. “Lots of shots, lots of chances. We played a pretty solid game.”

If the Flyers can get the forecheck going early, and limit their (especially in the defensive zone) turnovers, they have a strong chance against the Hawks’ backup. Hopefully Emery is not only sharp despite not having played in almost three weeks but familiar with his former team’s offensive systems, in attempting to stop Chicago’s overpowering, deep offense- which includes captain/former Conn Smythe Trophy winner Jonathan Toews, snipers Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa, and former Flyer Patrick Sharp.

Hossa returned to game action for the team’s 4-1 victory vs. Detroit on Sunday after missing the previous five games with an upper-body injury. With his goal and two assists in the aforementioned game, Chicago improved to an incredible 13-0-1 in games this season in which Hossa has multiple points.

Limiting Toews, Kane, Sharp and Hossa will be a tough task. Not having the starter in Mason in net vs. such a strong, well-balanced team will be difficult, to say the least.

Note: This is only the second meeting in Philadelphia between these two teams since the clinching Game 6 Stanley Cup Finals victory at the Wells Fargo Center in 2010 for Chicago, which occurred on June 9th of that year. The away team hasn’t won there in almost four years: the only Flyers’ home game vs. Chicago since then occurred two seasons ago in January of 2012 when they defeated the Hawks by a score of 5-4.

Keys To The Game

Chicago

Force turnovers- especially with Philadelphia’s sub-par defense
Put pressure on Emery (considering his amount of rest recently)
Take the game one period at a time (Don’t want to get too excited considering you play tomorrow night as well, vs. an excellent team no less)

Philadelphia

Limit the defensive zone turnovers/mistakes
Give Read and Giroux as much time as possible (the two have combined for eight points in the past three games)
Dictate the game (Don’t let Chicago do so)

Game Prediction

Chicago wins it in OT/SO 4-3

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