The Philadelphia Flyers may have started out the season slowly, getting former head coach Peter Laviolette fired in the process, but they have been playing some great hockey lately, going 9-2-1 since February 1st. They also are coming off of back-to-back wins over the Pittsburgh Penguins over the weekend, and they are looking like they’re peaking at the right time of the season.
As for the Chicago Blackhawks, things haven’t been going quite as well. They did have a nice win on Sunday night against the Detroit Red Wings, getting Marian Hossa back in the lineup in the process, but they did lose Brandon Saad to an injury in the game, and he did not travel with the team to Philadelphia. They also will be without Michal Rozsival for a few games after the defenseman suffered a lower body injury.
The Blackhawks also are struggling to keep pace in the Central Division, as both the St. Louis Blues and Colorado Avalanche have jumped ahead of the defending Stanley Cup champions. If the Hawks finish behind both teams in the division, then they would have to go on the road for their first round series, and losing home ice advantage that early in the playoffs can be a bit of a blow to a team’s chances.
A critical two-game stretch against the Flyers and Blues could put the Hawks back on track in that race, but if they struggle in these two contests, they may very well have to settle for third place and take on the role of road warriors once the playoffs roll around.
Key to the Game: Match the Flyers’ Depth
One of the things that have made the Flyers such a dangerous team recently is that they have been getting clutch play from a slew of guys on their roster. Whether it’s Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds, or Jakub Voracek, the Flyers have a very talented roster, and that’s even before you get to guys like Vincent Lecavalier.
Fortunately for the Blackhawks, they too are blessed with tremendous depth, and they are going to need to take advantage of it on Tuesday. Guys like Kris Versteeg and Bryan Bickell, who will be thrust into top line roles with Saad out of the lineup, have got to be able to produce on the offensive side of the puck in this one, or else the Hawks could find themselves running into a buzzsaw.
Blackhawk to Watch: Ben Smith
Smith has had a statistically quiet season for the Blackhawks this year, but he is always contributing something while he’s on the ice. Whether it’s on the penalty kill, playing defense with his fourth line teammates, or helping establish possession with Brandon Bollig and Marcus Kruger, Smith is one of the unsung heroes of this Hawks team.
On Sunday night, Smith got a chance to play alongside Patrick Kane, and he rose to the occasion. He picked up a goal and an assist in the game, and was instrumental in the victory over the Red Wings. He also got some power play time, and picked up an assist for his efforts in that area.
With Saad out due to injury, it would appear that Smith will once again get some time with Kane on Tuesday night. It’s a lot harder to duplicate a good performance on the second night in a new line combination, but in Smith’s case, it will be especially critical as the Hawks try to keep pace with the high-flying Flyers.
Flyer to Watch: Claude Giroux
Team Canada may have thought that Giroux wasn’t good enough for their roster, but he has spent the entire month of March destroying the NHL, racking up four multi-point efforts in seven games and notching 12 points in those contests. He picked up four key assists for the Flyers over the weekend, as they knocked off the Penguins on both Saturday and Sunday.
Giroux may not get some of the recognition from casual fans that players like Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby get, but when he is firing on all cylinders like he is right now, there are few players in this league who are as dangerous as the 26-year old from Ontario.