Game of the Week preview: Flyers hope to outlast Capitals for East’s top seed

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The last time the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers met in an NBC Game of the Week, the Flyers were smothered 7-0 in a game the Rangers clearly needed more than Philly. To at least some extent, it seemed like the Rangers took advantage of a Flyers team that didn’t have much on the line.

There was some concern that the April 3rd NBC Game of the Week (at 12:30 pm ET) would follow a similar script, but the Washington Capitals’ meteoric rise to the top spot in the East should give Philadelphia much more motivation. Sure, the Rangers still have more on the line since they are fighting for their playoff lives (more on that in the next post), but at least Philly has a delicious, dangling carrot to drive them to fight harder in this one.

The simplest way to look at the two-horse race for the East’s top seed is to point out that the Capitals have one more point, but the Flyers have one game in hand. A slightly deeper take would point out that Philly currently owns the non-shootout wins tiebreaker by one victory (43-42).

While that’s fine and dandy, those details only say so much regarding which team will prevail. Let’s take a look at both teams’ schedules and try to handicap the race for home ice advantage in the East.

Philadelphia’s remaining schedule

Home vs. Rangers (Sunday), @ Ottawa (Tuesday), @ Buffalo (Friday) and Home vs. Islanders (Saturday).

Two home vs. two away games.

One set of back-to-back contests.

Two matches against playoff contenders (Rangers and Sabres), two against cellar dwellers.

Additional thoughts: The Flyers will get a nice breather between Sunday afternoon’s game against the Rangers and Tuesday night’s contest against the Senators. They’ll get another nice break between that Ottawa contest and their back-to-back games, so they’re in a decent position to mop up points. It would certainly help their chances if the Senators and Islanders are in tank mode, rather than relishing the role of being spoilers, though. (The Islanders might resist the urge to tank since they’ll be going against their divisional rivals.)

Washington’s remaining schedule

Away vs. Toronto (Tuesday), home vs. Florida (Wednesday) and @ Florida (Saturday).

One home game vs. two away contests.

One set of back-to-back games.

One match against a playoff contender (Maple Leafs), two against the same cellar dweller (Panthers).

Additional thoughts: As slim as Toronto’s chances actually are, there’s a good chance they will go all-out in that Tuesday game against the Caps. Mix that hard working attitude with the game taking place in Toronto and it might be a tough draw for Washington. Luckily the Caps can beat up on the lowly Panthers, with a big break between the second half of a back-to-back on Wednesday and the final game of the season in Florida next Saturday.

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Overall, it’s really tough to gauge which team will end up with the top seed. Washington has a great chance to win both games against Florida and the Flyers’ game in hand might be slightly neutralized by an extra game against contenders. That being said, Philly does hold a small (but potentially crucial) tiebreaker, meaning Washington might need to finish with one more point to take the top spot.

If you weigh recent trends heavily, then you might want to know that the Caps have been hotter than the Flyers. Washington is 7-2-1 in their last 10 while Philadelphia is a lethargic 4-3-3 in their most recent 10 games. Will this lead change be a wake-up call for the Broadstreet Bullies, or is it too late?

For the second year in a row, Philly’s playoff position might not be decided until the final game of the season. This time around, they’re feeling a lot more comfortable, though.

Either way, these separate races give both the Rangers and Flyers a reason to care about Sunday’s game … making hockey fans the true winners.

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    Ducks’ Urho Vaakanainen crashes into boards, leaves on stretcher

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    ANAHEIM, Calif. — Ducks defenseman Urho Vaakanainen was taken off the Honda Center ice on a stretcher after he crashed into the end boards in the first period of Anaheim’s preseason game against the San Jose Sharks.

    The Finnish defenseman was conscious and alert with full movement in his extremities at UCI Medical Center, the Ducks said.

    The frightening incident occurred midway through the opening period when Vaakanainen smashed into the boards at a dangerous speed behind the Sharks’ net. Vaakanainen appeared to be concentrating on the pass he had just made to Derek Grant, who scored the Ducks’ opening goal on the assist.

    Vaakanainen’s teammates came onto the ice and gathered around him as he was taken away on the stretcher.

    The Ducks acquired the 23-year-old Vaakanainen from Boston last March in the deal that sent longtime Ducks defenseman Hampus Lindholm to the Bruins. After recording two assists in 14 games for the Ducks last season, Vaakanainen is attempting to win a top-six role on Anaheim’s defense this fall.

    Lightning donate $2 million to Hurricane Ian relief efforts

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    TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Lightning and team owner Jeff Vinik are donating $2 million toward Hurricane Ian relief efforts.

    The NHL team announced that $1 million each will be donated by the Tampa Bay Lightning Foundation and the Vinik Family Foundation.

    “This is a tragic situation for many families and communities across the state of Florida, but especially so in the southwest region of the state,” Vinik said in a statement released by the team. “In times like these the most important thing we can do is support one another, and we hope this donation will help families recover and rebuild in the months to come.”

    Ian made landfall Wednesday on Florida’s Gulf Coast, south of the Tampa Bay area. The Lightning postponed two home preseason games and moved the club’s training camp to Nashville, Tennessee, during the storm.

    Maple Leafs sign defenseman Rasmus Sandin to 2-year deal

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    TORONTO — Rasmus Sandin has signed a two-year, $2.8 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the club announced on Thursday.

    The 22-year-old from Sweden was the 29th overall selection in the 2018 draft. Sandin had 16 points in 51 games with Toronto last season. He’s played in 88 career regular-season games, with six goals and 22 assists, and has one goal in five playoff games.

    “Got a great set of tools,” fellow defenseman Jake Muzzin said. “With experience, I think they’re only going to get better.”

    The signing comes as the Leafs’ blueliners been hit hard by injuries. Muzzin has been dealing with a back issue, and Timothy Liljegren recently had surgery for a hernia.

    Toronto then lost Jamie Benn (groin) and Carl Dahlstrom (shoulder) in Wednesday’s 3-0 preseason victory over the Montreal Canadiens, pressing forwards Calle Jarnkrok and Alexander Kerfoot into defensive roles for two periods.

    Back with Wild, Fleury welcomes big workload as clear No. 1

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    ST. PAUL, Minn. — With his ever-present smile, tireless approach and long list of accomplishments in the net, Marc-Andre Fleury has always embraced a heavy workload.

    The Minnesota Wild sure haven’t shied away from leaning hard on their new – and 37-year-old – goalie. After arriving in a deadline-day trade in March and re-signing with the Wild in July, the guy everyone calls “Flower” is still fully abloom as he begins his 19th season in the NHL.

    “They say, `You play,’ I play, unless maybe I’m hurt or something,” Fleury said. “But other than that, I like playing.”

    Wild general manager Bill Guerin initially planned to bring back both Fleury and Cam Talbot, who made the All-Star team and went 13-0-3 in his last 16 regular season starts before being benched in favor of Fleury for the first-round playoff series against St. Louis. The Wild lost in six games, after Talbot got the cold start in the elimination game and gave up four goals on 26 shots.

    Guerin changed his mind, though, after signing Fleury to a two-year, $7 million contract. Realizing Talbot’s frustration from the lack of postseason action, he didn’t want to risk any tension or discontent. Talbot was traded to Ottawa for Filip Gustavsson, who will be the No. 2 goalie while top prospect Jesper Wallstedt gets more development in the AHL.

    Gustavsson has only 23 career regular-season starts, nearly 200 fewer than Talbot, so it’s a good bet that Fleury will get the majority of the games.

    “I was ready to share the load with him, but things didn’t work out and happy to be having the chance to play maybe a bit more. It’s fun to play. It’s more fun than sitting on the bench,” said Fleury, who went 28-23-5 in 56 combined starts for Chicago and Minnesota last season with a 2.90 goals against average and a .908 save percentage.

    The Wild reconvened for training camp last week, beginning their quest to recapture the mojo they enjoyed last season while setting franchise records for points (113), wins (53) and goals (305). The only team that finished ahead of them in the Western Conference was Colorado, which went on to win the Stanley Cup, but they never met the Avs in the playoffs because the Blues got to them first.

    There’s a strong chemistry in place, at least, to build upon.

    “We still have a lot of guys here who were here last year. We’re just trying to make it even better, just trying to listen to everybody,” center Joel Eriksson Ek said. “We want to set a standard and a way for how hard this team’s going to work.”

    The Wild start the regular season by hosting the New York Rangers on Oct. 13.

    COMINGS AND GOINGS

    The most significant roster move of the summer amongst the skaters was the inevitable salary-cap-driven trade of second-leading scorer Kevin Fiala to Los Angeles. Fiala had a career-high 33 goals and 52 assists last season. Guerin otherwise dabbled mostly in two-way contracts in free agency for depth. Former Anaheim center Sam Steel signed with Minnesota last month, one day after defenseman Dimitry Kulikov was dealt to the Ducks.

    MORE POWER

    The Wild were done in during the playoffs by abysmal special teams. They went just 4 for 24 on the power play against the Blues, and head coach Dean Evason had the team working on that on the first day on the ice. The penalty kill that lagged last season was a focus of the second practice.

    “It has to get better, no question,” Evason said.

    BLUE LINE SHUFFLE

    Captain Jared Spurgeon has been placed with Jonas Brodin on the first pair on defense, and Jake Middleton has joined Matt Dumba on the second unit. Dumba and Brodin are close friends who’ve been paired together for several seasons.

    “Dumbs is a shooter too,” said Middleton, who re-signed for three years and $7.35 million. “It’s pretty exciting. I can get some cookies passing him the puck. That’d be a big plus. I think it’ll work well. He loves hitting guys too. He plays a gritty game as well so I think we’ll be a good combo.”

    UP FRONT

    With Jordan Greenway recovering from offseason surgeries, Tyson Jost will get the first chance to skate with Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno. The departure of Fiala has opened at least one spot for a rookie to make the team, with 2020 first-round draft pick Marco Rossi in line for it.

    ON THE SLATE

    This is the first time in eight years the Wild will play their regular-season opener at home. After three more games at Xcel Energy Center, they don’t hit the road until a five-game trip that starts Oct. 22 at Boston. The Wild have a season-long nine-game homestand from Feb. 9-21.