VOORHEES – When the two hottest teams in the Metropolitan Division are about to face each other twice in a span of about 40 hours, sparks are bound to fly.
But if you add in the fact that we’re right in the middle of a playoff berth free-for-all and the Flyers and Rangers have hated each other for 50 years, now you’ve really got something.
So expect intense, emotional games when the teams square off Friday night at the Wells Fargo Center and again at noon on Sunday at Madison Square Garden.
A few statistics of note: The Rangers (prior to Thursday action) have won a surprising eight straight games on the road, four overall and gone 8-2 in the last 10 to climb within four points of Columbus for the second wild card spot with three games in hand.
“The Rangers are one of our biggest rivals,’’ Flyers coach Alain Vigneault said after Thursday’s practice. “We’re both battling hard to get into the playoffs.
“They’re the best games, they’re the games you look forward to. . .competitive, important, both teams will play with bite, will play with an edge. It will be great for the fans here and New York.’’
No one likes to see anyone get injured but the Flyers might be catching a break with the injury suffered by rookie goaltender Igor Shesterkin, who broke a rib in a recent car accident.
Shesterkin is 9-1 in his first 10 NHL games with a 2.23 goals-against average and .940 save percentage and will not play in either game against the Flyers.
“We have to play tight,’’ defenseman Ivan Provorov said. “Be aggressive. If we control the puck, they can’t score.’’
The Flyers have been hitting on all cylinders as well. What’s been clicking?
“I think our game at both ends of the rink is pretty good,’’ Vigneault said. “I think defensively we’ve been able to do a good job of defending against some elite players, elite teams.’’
A win on Friday night would give the Flyers 37 victories for the season, which would match last season’s entire total.
Defense has been a big part of that. The Flyers have a plus-25 goal differential, a high for the season and a 62-goal swing from last year.
The Flyers were 29th in the NHL on defense last year. Currently they are 11th.
The defense pairing of Matt Niskanen and Provorov can take a lot of the credit for that improvement.
“He (Niskanen) has tons of experience, he’s super steady,’’ Provorov said. “He never seems to make a mistake. Just solid overall, can move the puck, can create offensively. He’s been a big help.
“We read off each other pretty good. Have good chemistry. That allows us to spend less time defending and more time attacking. When you don’t have to defend the whole game like we did last year, you’re not going to get scored on as much.’’
Another key for the Flyers is their improving penalty kill, now up to ninth in the NHL at 81.9 percent.
“I think goaltending has a lot to do with it,’’ said Michael Raffl, a mainstay on the penalty kill. “We’re keeping it simple, not overthinking it. Just go out there and outwork the opponent is No. 1.’’
Assistant coach Mike Yeo has implemented a system that everybody can adhere to when executed properly.
“It’s finding a system that everyone is sticking to,’’ Raffl said. “He (Yeo) is very clear about what he wants in his pre-meetings. I think everyone enjoys that so you’re not overthinking. You go out and you know what you have to do.’’
>Cancer patient signs honorary Flyers contract
Cancer patient Blake Steigauf visited the Flyers on Thursday in what amounted to a dream of a lifetime, courtesy of Make-A-Wish of Philadelphia, Delaware and the Susquehanna Valley.
The 15-year-old from Lititz, Pa. got to suit up in practice uniform next to his favorite player, Claude Giroux.
Later, general manager Chuck Fletcher signed Steigauf to a honorary one-day contract.
Steigauf was diagnosed with cancer on April 24, 2019. He currently plays for the Manheim Central High School hockey team.
A longtime Flyers fan, he wished for the full Flyers experience: attend a practice and a game, visit the team’s locker room, eat lunch with the team, meet Giroux and Gritty, and get some practice time in on the ice with some of the players.
Steigauf not only got to meet Giroux and the rest of the team, including Gritty, but is being given two full days of professional player-level treatment at Thursday’s practice and Friday’s home game against the Rangers.
Kevin Hayes and Niskanen were given a day off from practice on Thursday for maintenance. “I expect both to be in the lineup tomorrow,’’ Vigneault said. . .The world’s best female hockey players are coming to Voorhees this weekend for a special exhibition at the Skate Zone. Games are Saturday at 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. and Sunday at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Tickets are available at pwhpa.com. . .Carter Hart will start in goal for the Flyers in Friday night’s game. Vigneault would not name a starter for Sunday. Shayne Gostisbehere continues to practice and is ready to play but Vigneault is sticking with the same lineup he used against Winnipeg, including Robert Hagg on defense.
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