VOORHEES – It’s not quite a battle for first place but it’s close enough that there won’t be a lot of the usual chirping during stoppages of play.
Wednesday night’s Flyers-Capitals game in D.C. should be a dandy, mainly because Washington is trying to hold off charging Philadelphia – winners of a season-high six straight games — from taking over the Metropolitan Division lead (the Flyers trail by three points, 86-83).
The Flyers enter the game with optimism, having gone 2-0-1 against the division leaders so far this season.
Flyers coach Alain Vigneault caused a few raised eyebrows after Tuesday’s practice when he chose Brian Elliott to start in goal rather than the red-hot Carter Hart.
But there is some method to that madness. It was Elliott who stopped the Caps in their tracks in a 7-2 win at D.C. back on Feb. 8.
Former Capitals, now current Flyers defenseman Matt Niskanen said his team, which trails Washington by three points with 16 games to play, will be taking this one much more seriously than a game, say, back in November.
“We’re trying to chase them down,’’ Niskanen said. “We’re building some good things and we want to keep pushing forward. We don’t want to stall or go backwards.
“I think we’re into that time of year when the jokes are fewer and far between. It’s go time – march into the playoffs, it’s pretty serious.’’
Scott Laughton expects a physical game and not a lot of pleasantries.
“The games are too important now,’’ Laughton said. “I think you saw it against the Rangers (a two-game Philadelphia sweep), things picked up a bit. You see a little bit of hate going on.’’
For some reason, the Flyers save their best for the best.
“We’ve played really well against the best teams,’’ Niskanen pointed out. “I don’t know if it’s a subconscious thing or what but we seem to be on high alert. We’ve played really detailed and with desperation.
“That’s a good thing. It brings out the best in us, when we play the good teams. We’ll try to do that again tomorrow.’’
Several Flyers pointed out one of the keys to success against Washington has been their power play. In the three games so far, the Flyers have killed off 11 of 12 Capitals power plays.
“I think most of our guys have been on top of their players,’’ Laughton said. “Not giving them too much time and space.
“On the penalty kill, we’ve done a pretty good job, not giving them too many opportunities. It’s going to be a big challenge tomorrow so we have to keep doing the same thing.’’
Claude Giroux and company have held superstar Alex Ovechkin without a goal against them this season and a lot of the credit for that goes to the penalty kill, now ranked 12th in the NHL at 21.2 percent.
“Their power play is very solid (ranked 15th) and I think our PK has done a good job against them,’’ Giroux said. “That’s always a big factor.’’
Vigneault likes the way his penalty kill has responded in big situations.
“Our PK has been one of the staples of this team,’’ Vigneault said. “We’ve been able to shut down some good power plays through good preparation. We’re going to be tested again tomorrow. That’s going to be a big part of tomorrow’s game.
Added Elliott: “It (the PK) is definitely a focus. They’re so dangerous, they’ve got a lot of skill. We’ve just taken it as a challenge, looked at what they like to do and just try to do the best we can. Guys like Robert Hagg, he’s fearless stepping into those Ovechkin shots. Those types of plays are big when you’re trying to quiet the power play.’’
Elliott is enjoying somewhat of a comeback year. He enters the game 15-7-4, a bunch of those games on the road where the Flyers are just .500 (15-15-3).
“We know what happened the last game we played there,’’ said Elliott, who is 11-5-2 on the road this season. “They’re going to be gunning to get us back. We have to answer that. It will be a fun atmosphere – a couple big teams playing a big game.’’
Vigneault knows he has five more back-to-back game situations in this last month of the season and doesn’t want to burn out either goalie. Hart is likely to start Thursday’s home game against Carolina.
“He (Elliott) played a real solid game for us (in the 7-2 win in D.C.),’’ Vigneault said. “Like we have all year long, we’re using both goaltenders. We have confidence in both.’’
Hagg plays some of his best hockey against these upper echelon teams and inspires the bench with his shot-blocking and hitting.
Right now he’s keeping a healthy Shayne Gostisbehere fastened to the bench.
“He (Hagg) has found a way to earn a spot in our group through an opportunity when ‘Ghost’ got hurt,’’ Vigneault said. “Hagg came in, played real well and at the same time, the team’s game has picked up.’’
>Autographs on hold
The Flyers are trying to take as many precautions as possible due to the coronavirus. One of the upcoming concessions might be a temporary halt to signing of autographs. “I think guys are going to start saying no right now,’’ Elliott said. “It (coronavirus) is out there and you have to be careful.’’