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NHL on NBCSN: Flyers open ‘make it or break it’ portion of schedule against Capitals

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NBCSN will continue its coverage of the 2016-17 campaign tonight when the Philadelphia Flyers host the Washington Capitals at 8:00 p.m. ET. If you want to watch the game online, you can do so here.

Last year, the Capitals ran away with the Presidents’ Trophy and although they aren’t light years ahead of everyone this time around, they remain the top team in the NHL heading into tonight’s game.

But as hot as they’ve been, the Caps are finding out that coming back from the bye week is no easy task. Before their six-day break, Washington had rattled off six consecutive victories over Boston, Montreal, Los Angeles, Carolina, Detroit and Anaheim. Since the end of their break, they’ve dropped back-to-back games to the Red Wings and Rangers.

It’s the first time since Dec. 27-29 that the Capitals dropped two in row. Not to make excuses for them, but the condensed schedule and extended breaks have done wacky things to some good teams.

“We were just moving too slow, moving the puck too slow and not moving our legs quick enough,” Matt Niskanen said after Sunday’s 2-1 loss to the Rangers, per the Washington Post. “It showed. . . . We’re shaking off the rust a bit, but the second two periods is a step in the right direction.”As Niskanen mentioned, the Caps looked better as the game wore on, but in both losses, sluggish starts have been an issue. We’ll see if they can fix that tonight.Unlike Washington, Philadelphia’s spot in the playoffs is far from secure.The Flyers enter tonight’s game three points back of the Florida Panthers for the final Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference (they’ve played one more game than Florida).This will be Philadelphia’s first game back home after their Western Canadian swing. The first two games of that trip didn’t go very well, as they were outscored 9-4 in a pair of losses to Calgary and Edmonton, but they salvaged the trip with a 3-2 win over Vancouver on Sunday.Starting tonight, the Flyers will begin a tough stretch of games. They’ll close out the month with a road tilt against Pittsburgh before returning home to face the last-place Avs. Things will get even tougher for them in March, as they’ll play 15 games in 30 days. Of those 15 contests, 13 will come against Eastern Conference opponents.

“It is make it or break it. That’s it,” defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere said, per Philly.com. “You are either in the playoffs or no, and you are going to play against the hardest teams and it is going to be a little bit of a dogfight for us.”

Into the fire: Halak, recalled yesterday, starts for Isles in Pittsburgh

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A little scene setting for you.

New York heads into tonight’s massive game in Pittsburgh sitting two points back of Boston for the final wild card in the Eastern Conference. The Isles have two games in hand on the B’s — who are idle tonight — so a win could move them into a playoff spot.

As such, the Isles will start a goalie that hasn’t played in the NHL in 85 days.

Against the league’s highest-scoring offense.

The goalie in question is Jaroslav Halak, who’s spent the last three months playing for the Isles’ AHL affiliate in Bridgeport. Recalled yesterday, Halak will now face big league competition for the first time since Dec. 29, when he allowed four goals on 24 shots in a loss to Minnesota.

(Afterward, then-head coach Jack Capuano ripped Halak, saying he gave up “some soft goals to start” and “wasn’t sharp at all.”)

But Halak’s been really good in Bridgeport.

He’s posted a 17-7-1 record with a 2.15 GAA and .925 save percentage, and a pair of shutouts. And given how spotty Berube’s play has been as Greiss’ backup, the Isles really had no other choice than to recall Halak.

The club is in the midst of a compacted part of the schedule. Greiss was excellent in Wednesday’s win over the Rangers — stopping 34 of 36 shots in a 3-2 victory — but he was also busy.

The Isles are in Pittsburgh tonight, then host the Bruins on Saturday — another massive game — then host the Preds on Monday. It’s a compact part of the schedule, and Berube’s struggles have rendered him virtually unplayable, given how meaningful the games are (and, to borrow a timeless cliche, how vital points are at this time of the year.)

So it’s Halak tonight, and possibly more down the stretch.

For Tuukka Rask and the Bruins, a ‘bad goal’ at the worst possible time

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The growing ranks of Tuukka Rask detractors gained some serious ammunition during last night’s loss to Tampa Bay.

The deciding goal in the 6-3 defeat was a “bad one,” according to Rask and most anyone else who was watching.

It may have been a hard shot by Jonathan Drouin, unleashed at the top of the circle, but it still should’ve been stopped.

After the game, Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy told reporters that Rask “needed to be better tonight.”

In fact, Rask hasn’t been very good the past few months. Since Jan. 1, his save percentage is just .888. But with nobody trustworthy behind him, he’s had to just play through his struggles.

It’s impossible to say if Rask’s numbers would be better if the Bruins had a more capable backup. He’d be more rested, though. And when he was struggling, the coach would at least have another option to consider. With an .897 save percentage on the season, Anton Khudobin simply hasn’t been reliable enough to garner that consideration.

Don’t expect Rask to get the next game off. Saturday in Brooklyn, the Bruins — losers of four straight in regulation, and suddenly on the verge of falling out of the playoff picture — face the Islanders in arguably the biggest game of both teams’ seasons.

Bolts recall Koekkoek, putting Garrison’s status into doubt

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The Tampa Bay Lightning, after earning a big win last night in Boston, may not have defenseman Jason Garrison tonight in Detroit.

The Bolts recalled d-man Slater Koekkoek from AHL Syracuse this morning — a move that would seem to put Garrison’s status into doubt against the Red Wings.

Garrison was forced to leave the Bruins game in the second period with a lower-body injury.

Koekkoek has played 29 games for the Lightning this season, recording no goals and four assists.

Melnyk blasts ‘whiner’ Crosby, who won’t face hearing for Methot slash

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Sidney Crosby won’t face a disciplinary hearing for his slash on Ottawa d-man Marc Methot, an NHL spokesman confirmed — news that won’t be welcomed by Sens owner Eugene Melnyk.

The incident occurred during Ottawa’s 2-1 win on Thursday night, and forced Methot from the game with a bloodied, lacerated finger. The club later announced that Methot would be “out for weeks” with the injury.

Crosby’s slash came two nights after he speared Sabres forward Ryan O’Reilly below the belt. It should be noted that neither the O’Reilly spear or Methot slash resulted in penalty calls, and neither was subjected to supplementary discipline.

One individual that’s guaranteed to be upset with today’s news is Melynk. He appeared on TSN 1200 radio this morning and seemed to suggest the league was looking into the Crosby-Methot incident.

He also had a few choice words for No. 87:

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