GAME 1: FLYERS vs. PENGUINS
The pandemic-delayed 2020-21 National Hockey League season gets underway tonight as Alain Vigneault's Philadelphia Flyers host Mike Sullivan's Pittsburgh Penguins at the Wells Fargo Center at 5:30 p.m. ET. The game will be televised nationally on NBC Sports Network.
Due to statewide regulations on indoor gatherings amid the coronavirus pandemic, there will be no fans admitted to the Wells Fargo Center at least at the start of this season. The same goes for PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh.
The pandemic also brought about divisional realignments across the NHL for the 2020-21 season. All teams will be play a 56-game regular season schedule, with all games played inside each team's division. The top four teams in each division will make the playoffs and, following divisional playoffs in the first and second rounds of the postseason, each division will be represented by one team in the Stanley Cup semifinals.
Wednesday's game with the Penguins is the first of eight between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh this season. The teams will square off again on Friday at the Wells Fargo Center. Subsequently, the teams will play in Pittsburgh on March 2 and 4, back in Pittsburgh again on April 13 and 15, and conclude the season series in Philadelphia on May 3 and 4.
Last season, the Flyers went 1-1-1 against their archrival. For an in-depth look the rivalry history between the clubs, click here
The biggest stories in the Flyers' abbreviated training camp in Voorhees was the returns of Nolan Patrick and Oskar Lindblom. Both looked healthy in camp and Patrick in particular performed very well in practice drills, scrimmages and an intersquad game on Jan. 10 at the Wells Fargo Center.
Patrick, who missed all of training camp and the entire 2019-20 season due to chronic migraines, will center the Flyers' third line to start the season, with James van Riemsdyk and Jakub Voracek on his wings. Patrick will also be on the second power play unit.
Lindblom, who was the Flyers' leading goal-scorer last season at the time he was diagnosed in December 2019 with Ewing Sarcoma (a rare form of bone cancer which is more often found in pediatric patients than adults). He underwent chemotherapy and rib removal surgery and is now in remission. Lindblom made a dramatic return to play in Games 6 and 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinal against the New York Islanders. He spent the offseason regaining muscle mass and weight lost during his cancer battle.
Over the first quarter of last season, the Flyers' most effective line combination was the trio of Selke Trophy winning center Sean Couturier centering Lindblom and Travis Konecny. The line was broken up not due to a significant downturn in their own play but, rather, to try to spark other lines. The trio has been reunited to start the 2020-21 season.
Konecny, who led the Flyers in both goals and total points during the regular season last year to earn his first trip to the NHL All-Star Game, had a disappointing postseason that he is eager to improve upon this year. Ditto team captain Claude Giroux, van Riemsdyk (a healthy scratch on multiple occasions in the playoffs), and Voracek (who played quite well in the first round against Montreal but had a rough series against the Islanders).
Rapidly emerging as one of the best young goaltenders in the National Hockey League, Carter Hart is coming off a campaign that saw him post franchise record-setting (highest home save percentage in team history, top 3 overall in winning percentage, goals against average plus save percentage) statistics on home ice. The road was a struggle for Hart during the regular season. The discrepancy was almost certainly an anomaly. His past history was one of similar home-road splits at every level, and his staggering home stats are likely unrealistic to replicate on a year-in and year-us basis.
Patrick and Lindblom's returns are the biggest additions the Flyers have made since the end of last regular season. The team also signed unrestricted free agent offensive-minded defenseman Erik Gustafsson to a one-year contract. The biggest departure from the club was the early retirement of two-way veteran defenseman Matt Niskanen with a year still to run on his contract.
Replacing Niskanen's all-situation minutes will not be easy. The team will need the duo of Travis Sanheim and Phil Myers to take the next step in their development by bringing somewhat greater consistency to their top-level performances. Myers will be asked to take on some penalty killing minutes for the first time at the NHL level. At least to start the season, they will be kept together as a defensive pairing, after both played well together overall as a pairing last season and in the past at the AHL level.
The Flyers enter the regular season relatively healthy. However, they have been without defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere since last Saturday for an undisclosed reason. The player will not be available for the opener against the Penguins. However, in light of the fact that he's on the 23-man roster and not on injured reserve, it seems that his absence is not anticipated to be anything long-term in nature.
Veteran defenseman Justin Braun, who took a significant pay cut from his previous contract and re-signed a two-year contract extension in the offseason, will at least temporarily start the season paired at 5-on-5 with No. 1 defenseman Ivan Provorov. There is a good possibility, however, that Braun will take neutral zone and defensive zone starts alongside Provorov but someone such as Gustafsson or Myers will man the right point in offensive zone starts. Braun will continue in his accustomed penalty killing role as well.
2017 first-round pick Morgan Frost has made the team's opening-night roster as the 13th forward. An AHL All-Star as a rookie last season, Frost scored in each of his first two NHL games during his initial recall (he later had a two-game second recall) to the Flyers. In the offseason, he worked to add some needed muscle mass to his frame. Throughout camp, he focused on being harder to knock off the puck, keeping his feet moving to play at a quicker pace, winning more 50-50 puck battles and continuing to refine his defensive play. Frost saw shifts both at center (his normal position) and on left wing during camp.
On the Flyers' official website, we are doing a team-by-team analysis of eacch of the Flyers' rival clubs in the Eastern Division. For a look at how the Penguins stack up heading into this season, click here
Entering his second stint with the Penguins' organization, forward Kasperi Kapanen (the son of Flyers' Alum fan favorite Sami Kapanen, and a Delaware Valley resident during childhood) is unavailable to the Penguins for the back-to-back games against the Flyers to start the season. This is due to NHL quarantine protocols.
Pittsburgh otherwise has all of its key personnel available for the opener. Tristan Jarry, who trained with the Flyers' Hart during a portion the offseason, will get the start in goal.
In addition to Kapanen, the Penguins added free agent defenseman Codi Ceci during the offseason, along with veteran checking forward Colton Sceviour and Mike Matheson (from Florida) and free agent Mark Jankowski.
(subject to change)
23 Oskar Lindblom - 14 Sean Couturier - 11 Travis Konecny
28 Claude Giroux - 13 Kevin Hayes - 86 Joel Farabee
25 James van Riemsdyk - 19 Nolan Patrick - 93 Jakub Voracek
12 Michael Raffl- 21 Scott Laughton- 62 Nicolas Aube-Kubel
9 Ivan Provorov - 61 Justin Braun
6 Travis Sanheim - 5 Phil Myers
8 Robert Hägg - 56 Erik Gustafsson
79 Carter Hart
[37 Brian Elliott]
PP1: Provorov, Giroux, Hayes, Couturier, TK
PP2: Farabee, JVR, Patrick, Voracek, Gustafsson
Scratches: 48 Morgan Frost (healthy), 53 Shayne Gostisbehere (COVID-19 protocol), 3 Mark Friedman (healthy).
59 Jake Guentzel - 87 Sidney Crosby - 9 Evan Rodrigues
16 Jason Zucker - 71 Evgeni Malkin - 17 Bryan Rust
19 Jared McCann - 14 Mark Jankowski - 13 Brandon Tanev
18 Sam Lafferty - 53 Teddy Blueger - 7 Colton Sceviour
8 Brian Dumoulin - 58 Kris Letang
5 Mike Matheson - 6 John Marino
28 Marcus Pettersson - 4 Cody Ceci
35 Tristan Jarry
[1 Casey DeSmith]
PP1: Rust, Crosby, Guentzel, Malkin, Letang.
PP2: Pettersson, Zucker, McCann, Rodrigues, Marino.
Scratches: 2 Chad Ruhwedel (healthy), 42 Kasperi Kapanen (COVID-19 protocol), 50 Juuso Riikola (healthy).