Flyers keep confident as playoff push continues

WASHINGTON – How will we respond? That was the message in the Flyers locker room on Saturday as they again found themselves in a critical position against the Capitals.

After falling 5-0 to the Devils on Thursday, Philadelphia seized the opportunity to not only rebound from one of the toughest losses of the season, but to continue their playoff push and keep momentum alive.

“There’s not much to say. When you get to this level, you should know when you have one bad loss, you need to regroup and get back to it,” captain Claude Giroux said. “We talked about coming out of bye week, if we lose one, we need to regroup and get the next one, so hopefully it’s something we’re going to do for the rest of the year.”

It’s that mentality that helped the Flyers pull together one of their best overall performances. They dominated Washington at both ends of the ice en route to a commanding 7-2 victory to tie the Hurricanes for the second wild card spot in the East.

Their play was evident of a team that could pose a major threat come April. The Flyers dominated in the face-off circle, winning over 70 percent of their draws, while they also got key performances from critical players – most notable Giroux, who was able to end a four-game scoreless drought, notch his first goal since Jan. 2 and register his 800th career point with a goal and two assists.

[NHL on NBCSN: Ovechkin’s chase for 700th goal continues Monday at 7 p.m. ET]

“The win feels the best… and I haven’t been playing that great lately,” Giroux admitted. “t’s good to be able to contribute to a team win and we have to keep it going here.”

Beyond their stars, though, they also got a strong offensive performance from all four lines, from Sean Couturier’s two goals to a Gordie Howe hat trick for Nicolas Aube-Kubel.

Even more impressive was the defense. In his return to Washington since being traded to Philadelphia in the offseason, Matt Niskanen and Robert Hagg – who led the team with four blocked shots — helped lead the blue line put together a wall that shut down Alex Ovechkin, who was held at bay as he approaches 700 career goals, and kept Washington scoreless on three of four power play opportunities.

Brian Elliott also had another strong showing in net, stopping 25 of 27 shots for his third win in five games.

“Really proud of the guys. I think we approached it the exact right way that we needed to,” Niskanen said. “We acknowledged how embarrassing and how bad we were the other night and brought one of our best efforts of the season… that’s a good sign that we have a lot of character in here and something to build on.”

“You’re going to have a game now and then where it doesn’t go your way, you have a stinker – whatever it is – but if you can bounce back and get a couple wins the next time out, that’s a good quality.”

Although the Flyers are tied with Carolina in the standings, the Hurricanes currently hold the tiebreaker, meaning Philly is still looking from the outside in and can’t afford to slow down, with the division race tight and the wild card race even tighter.

“[This] was important… this time of year, you really can’t lose two, three in a row,” Couturier said.

“It’s Saturday night in a tough rink, and we wanted to bring it. I thought we came [to D.C.] with our A-game, you could tell everybody was into it right away,” Elliott added. “That’s what we want to bring every night. It’s tough in an 82-game schedule, but these are the types of games and this time of year that you need to bring it.”

Heading into another tough matchup on Monday against the Panthers – who are in a major playoff push of their own – the Flyers’ mentality stays the same as they look to not only collect points, but maintain the same play and success they’ve shown against top teams so far this season.

“We’re a good team. This is a tough league and there are no bad teams and everybody works hard and everybody prepares,” head coach Alain Vigneault said. “We were fortunate we capitalized on some of our looks and got a big game from Giroux and Couturier, so [we’ll] build off that.”

————

Sammi Silber is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop her a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow her on Twitter @sammisilber.

Scroll Down For:

    Penguins prospect Sam Poulin taking leave of absence

    pittsburgh penguins
    Jeanine Leech/Getty Images
    0 Comments

    PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins forward prospect Sam Poulin is taking a leave of absence from the club’s American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

    Penguins general manager Ron Hextall announced on Wednesday that the 21-year-old Poulin, Pittsburgh’s first-round pick in the 2019 draft, is stepping away due to “personal reasons.”

    “The Penguins support Sam’s decision to take time away from hockey to focus on himself,” Hextall said in a release. “As with all of our players, our priority is them as individuals first. We look forward to having him back with the team when he is ready.”

    Hextall said Poulin will return home to Quebec and continue to work out on his own.

    Poulin made his NHL debut in October and had one assist in three games before heading back to the AHL. Poulin had four goals in 13 games for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at the time of his decision.

    Nathan MacKinnon sidelined about a month with upper-body injury

    Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports
    0 Comments

    DENVER — The injury-riddled Colorado Avalanche will be without leading scorer Nathan MacKinnon for about a month after he suffered an upper-body injury in a loss to Philadelphia.

    The team announced the news on social media.

    MacKinnon has eight goals and 26 assists for a team-best 34 points this season for the defending Stanley Cup champions. He joins a long list of banged-up players, including Valeri Nichushkin, Evan Rodrigues, Bowen Byram, Kurtis MacDermid, Josh Manson, Darren Helm and captain Gabriel Landeskog. Forward Artturi Lehkonen also missed the game in Philadelphia.

    The 27-year-old MacKinnon signed an eight-year extension in August. He was coming off a postseason in which he tied for the league lead with 13 goals, helping the Avalanche raise their third Stanley Cup in franchise history.

    Former Bruins coach Cassidy wins; Boston’s home streak ends

    Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
    1 Comment

    BOSTON — The Vegas Golden Knights made former Boston coach Bruce Cassidy’s return a success on Reilly Smith‘s score in the fifth round of the shootout, beating the Bruins 4-3 to end their NHL-record for home victories to open a season at 14 games.

    The 57-year-old Cassidy was fired by Boston following 5 1/2 seasons in June after the Bruins were eliminated by Carolina in the opening round of the playoffs.

    Eight days after he was let go, he was hired by Vegas.

    In a matchup of two of the league’s top three teams, Western conference-leading Vegas opened a 3-0 lead early in the second period on two goals by Paul Cotter and the other by Jonathan Marchessault before the Bruins started their comeback when Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak scored just over six minutes apart late in the period.

    They tied it on Taylor Hall‘s power-play goal 3:08 into the third when he spun in front and slipped a shot from the slot past goalie Logan Thompson.

    Smith had the only score in the shootout, slipping a forehand shot past goalie Jeremy Swayman.

    Cassidy took over as Boston’s interim coach on Feb. 7, 2016, before getting the head job that April. His teams made the playoffs all six seasons, including a trip to the 2019 Stanley Cup Final when they lost the seventh game at home against St. Louis.

    Cassidy knows what it sounds like in TD Garden with The Standells’ song “Dirty Water” blaring after Bruins’ wins.

    “Now that you brought it up, I’m used to hearing “Dirty Water” at the end of the game,” he said, smiling. “I’m glad I didn’t hear it tonight. The streak is irrelevant to me. It’s nice to come in and play well.”

    Boston lost for just the second time in 12 games.

    “This locker room sticks together, and we knew we were going to do something special tonight,” Swayman said. “It (stinks) losing, but we’re going to make sure we fix the problems.”

    The Bruins’ home-opening streak broke the record of 11 that was set by the 1963-64 Chicago Blackhawks and equaled by the Florida Panthers last season.

    Before the shootout, Thompson made 40 saves. Boston’s backup Swayman had 21.

    “This city meant a lot to him, and he was fired up ready to go,” Thompson said of Cassidy. “We went out there and tried to get him two points tonight.”

    Cotter collected William Karlsson‘s pass inside the left circle and unloaded a wrister under the crossbar 1:36 into the game.

    Marchessault stole Pastrnak’s attempted clearing pass, broke in alone and tucked in his own rebound to make it 2-0.

    Cotter’s second came 51 seconds into the second period when he slipped a wrister past Swayman’s glove.

    “We couldn’t get it done early, before the shootout. We had chances,” Pastrnak said. “It’s a tough one to swallow.”

    Vegas star forward Jack Eichel missed the game with a lower-body injury.

    TRIBUTE

    The Bruins played a video montage of Cassidy on the Jumbotron late in the opening period that ended with a picture of him and said: “Welcome back, Bruce.”

    The crowd gave him a nice ovation and he waved thanking them.

    “It’s a really nice gesture by the Bruins’ organization,” he said. “I appreciate it. I said all along that I have a tremendous amount of respect for them. I’m thankful they did it.”

    FOR THE RECORD

    Cassidy finished tied for third on the Bruins’ coaching list with Hall of Famer Milt Schmidt (1955-66) at 245 victories, behind Claude Julien’s (2008-17) 419 and Art Ross (1925-45) with 387.

    EXTRA SPECIAL TEAMS

    The Bruins entered the game ranked second in the league both with their power play (29.6%) and penalty killing (84.1%).

    UP NEXT

    Golden Knights: Host the New York Rangers.

    Bruins: At the Colorado Avalanche.

    Penguins plot a way forward as Letang recovers from stroke

    kris letang
    Kyle Ross/USA TODAY Sports
    1 Comment

    PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang returned to the ice on Thursday, just three days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

    The “twirl” the longtime Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman took at the club’s practice facility was approved by team doctors, a spin designed to help Letang’s mental health and nothing else. While the 35-year-old remains upbeat, it remains far too early to put a timeline on when his familiar No. 58 will return to the lineup.

    Though Pittsburgh general manager Ron Hextall indicated this stroke isn’t as severe as the one Letang endured in 2014 – when a hole in the wall of his heart led to a stroke that forced him to miss two months – the six-time All-Star is continuing to undergo tests.

    There are no plans for Letang to participate in any sort of hockey-specific drills anytime soon, with coach Mike Sullivan stressing the club will “err on the side of caution” when it comes to whatever rehab Letang might need.

    While Letang – one of the most well-conditioned players in the NHL – essentially went through the motions by himself, his teammates were 30 minutes south at PPG Paints Arena getting ready for a visit from Vegas and trying to plot a way forward without one of the franchise cornerstones, at least in the short term.

    Letang made it a point to help break the news to the rest of the Penguins following a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina on Tuesday. Pittsburgh scratched Letang from the lineup with an unspecified illness and he spent a portion of the game watching from the press box next to Hextall.

    Afterward, Letang informed a somber locker room about his condition, a revelation that came as a shock even as he did his best to reassure those around him that he was and is OK.

    “It’s very serious health stuff,” defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said. “You hear about strokes and it’s never really good so we’re just glad to see he’s doing well and everything is good with him.”

    Sullivan understands it would be practically impossible for any of the other defensemen on the roster to replicate what Letang brings to the ice, so he’s not going to ask any one player to try. There are few players at the position in the NHL who have Letang’s mix of speed, skill and almost bottomless energy.

    The highest-scoring defenseman in franchise history is averaging a team-best 23:54 of ice time and has long been a fixture on the power play and in just about every crucial late-game situation.

    “I just think Tanger is not an easy guy to replace,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think from a tactical standpoint things change drastically. It’s just personnel based. But as you know, personnel can mean a lot in those types of situations.”

    It’s more than that, however. This isn’t a routine injury. There’s an emotional component and an unknown element to Letang’s status even as the Penguins insist they don’t believe his condition is career-threatening.

    “This is a whole different circumstance than an ankle injury or a shoulder injury,” Sullivan said. “This is a very different circumstance.”

    Letang’s on-ice presence is just one aspect of his importance to a team that has never missed the playoffs since he made his debut in 2007. He’s become a mentor to younger teammates like 23-year-old defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who like Letang is French-Canadian and who, like Letang, plays with a graceful fluidity.

    Joseph, who declined to get into specifics about Letang’s message to the team on Tuesday night, believes the best thing the Penguins can do during Letang’s absence is attack the game with the same passion he’s shown for 17 seasons and counting.

    “The way he plays for the team every single night and the way he puts his heart and soul into the game on the ice, it’s the least we can do is have our thoughts of him whenever we get on the ice,” Joseph said.

    Sullivan shuffled the lineup on Tuesday, elevating veteran Jeff Petry and Brian Dumoulin to the top defensive pair. Petry possesses a skillset that’s not too far removed from Letang’s, but it’s also his first year in Pittsburgh. Asking him to provide the leadership that’s innate to Letang is unfair. It’s one of the reasons Sullivan is insistent that it will take a group effort to fill in for a singular presence.

    “We have some diversity on our blue line right now,” Sullivan said. “We feel like we have guys capable of stepping in and getting the job done for us and we’re going to try and do that.”