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Why watch: Senators-Penguins conference semifinals

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Why watch: Senators-Penguins conference semifinals

We're a good four months away from seeing any professional hockey in Philadelphia, but this year's NHL playoffs continue to roll on.

The Eastern Conference semifinal series kicks off tonight at 7:30 p.m., with the Ottawa Senators traveling to Pittsburgh to face off against the Penguins. Looking for an excuse to watch? Below, the nuts and bolts of what you need to know to enjoy this Flyers-less playoff series.

Let's play catch-up
It took the Penguins six games – and a lot more effort – to eliminate the New York Islanders in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals than anyone expected. And Pens starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury had a fair amount of trouble, looking a lot like he did last spring against the Flyers. Fleury was eventually ousted in favor of backup Tomas Vokoun, who was in net for Games 5 and 6.  

By contrast, the Sens capitalized on goalie issues in their opening-round series against the Montreal Canadiens, in which Habs goalie Carey Price was injured and had to be replaced with backup Peter Budaj. Ottawa's goaltender, Craig Anderson, arguably kept them in the series, too. Though it took only five games for the seventh-ranked Sens to knock off the No. 2-seeded Canadiens, they were far from adept at starting games, putting the pressure on Anderson (who allowed only two first-period goals on 66 opening-stanza shots).

Storylines
The matchup might not have the cache of, say, a Flyers-Pens series or a Boston-Montreal pairing, but these two teams do have some history. They've faced each other in the playoffs three times, with the Pens emerging as victors in the two more recent meetings (2010, 2008).

Things get particularly interesting if you zero in on this year's Senators-Penguins relationship, however. First: The Penguins took all three of the games in the teams' regular-season series in 2013, outscoring the Sens 9-4 in the process. But it's the meeting between these two teams on Feb. 13 that really adds some drama to this series.

Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson, one of the best young blueliners in the league, was the victim of a scary incident in that game, in which a skate blade sliced through his left Achilles tendon, leading many to believe he'd miss the rest of the Sens' 2013 campaign. (He returned, obviously). But it was Penguins forward Matt Cooke who delivered the hit that led to Karlsson's injury, and it's safe to say neither Karlsson nor his teammates have forgotten that fact. Cooke, of course, said the play was unintentional; but that doesn't mean tensions won't be high on both sides of the red line.

Also, as it was against the Islanders, expect the Penguins to continue to avenge their 2011-12 fate of falling to the Flyers in an embarrassing fashion in the playoffs' first round. The big question for them is, then: Which goaltender will give them a better shot to compete with Anderson and the Sens? Penguins coach Dan Bylsma has so far been mum on the subject.

Players to watch


Penguins: Sidney Crosby
Sorry, Flyers fans – we know that’s probably not what you want to read right now. But Crosby was impressive during the Pens’ first-round series, netting three goals and tacking on six assists after returning from a jaw injury for Game 2. On a team all but defined by its offensive depth, Crosby continues to be one of the most exciting players to follow – but if paying attention to the Flyers’ arch rival doesn’t do it for you, keep an eye on Evgeni Malkin. The dangerous Russian leads the Pens with 11 postseason points.

Senators: Erik Karlsson
Karlsson was the recipient of last season’s Norris Trophy (awarded to the NHL’s top defenseman). He was arguably on pace for another impressive season when he suffered that aforementioned 70-percent tear of his left Achilles tendon, causing him to miss 31 games. But Karlsson, who returned just before the regular season came to an end, hasn’t lost a step. He was the best Senator on the ice through the team’s five-game series with the Canadiens.

(Consider keeping an eye on Jason Spezza, too. The Sens’ center practiced this weekend for the first time since he underwent back surgery in February. While there’s no guarantee he’ll make an appearance in the series, he changes the Sens’ landscape entirely if he does.)

Prediction
As mentioned, Pittsburgh swept the Senators this season, outscoring them 9-4 in the process. But the Pens had some trouble containing the Islanders’ young, quick forwards, and similar issues could plague them against Ottawa (especially if Spezza returns to the lineup during the series). That said, as long as the Penguins are motivated – instead of exhausted – by their emotional first-round series, this matchup is theirs for the taking. Penguins in six.

3 reasons why Flyers shut down 'best player in the world' Connor McDavid

3 reasons why Flyers shut down 'best player in the world' Connor McDavid

BOX SCORE

A stat line of 0 goals, 0 assists and 0 points has never looked so good.

That's how Connor McDavid will remember his 22:03 of ice time Saturday afternoon at the Wells Fargo Center.

In another tight-checking defensive battle, it was Wayne Simmonds who scored the game-winner with 2:15 remaining in the third period to give the Flyers a 2-1 victory over the Oilers (see observations).

"Pretty big emphasis," Simmonds said of McDavid. "He's probably the best player in the world right now, so you know, we just didn't want him getting the puck in full flight.

"We just wanted to keep him on the outside and kind of limit the touches he was getting."

Aside from the broken collarbone game during his rookie season, when he was forced to leave in the second period, this marked the first time the Flyers held the 20-year-old superstar without a single point.

Prior to Saturday, McDavid had registered six points against the Flyers with at least one point in three straight games.

So, how did the orange and black bottle up the Art Ross Trophy winner — the only NHL player to top 100 points last season?

1. Deploy a multitude of forward lines and defensive pairings
Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol started the game matching McDavid's line with Scott Laughton's line. In the final two periods, the task of slowing down McDavid — for the most part — was left to Sean Couturier and the Flyers' top line.

McDavid had five extended shifts of 1:30 or longer, requiring the Flyers to use a combination of lines and bodies against McDavid. Last year, McDavid may have capitalized against a slower Flyers team but this season, there is more balance across the four lines.

"It's real important," Hakstol said. "And it's not just the extended shifts. He's got an ability to finish a long shift, take one off and come right back, and that can be challenging."

2. Ensure Ivan Provorov was on the ice
After the Shayne Gostisbehere-Robert Hagg pairing handled some of the first-period shifts against McDavid, it was Provorov who primarily handled those duties in the final 40 minutes. Paired mostly with Andrew MacDonald, Provorov also saw ice time with Hagg, Radko Gudas and even Gostisbehere in the third period.

Fronted by Provorov, McDavid failed to register a single shot on Brian Elliott in the third period. Not surprisingly, Provorov played a season-high 25:54.

"His skating ability and his positioning on the ice is so good he's able to slow guys down to kind of put him on his back, just kind of angle them into parts of the ice they don't want to go into," MacDonald said. "It makes it a lot easier when you're playing with a guy who's capable of doing that so well and covering so much ground. It's great to see and he just keeps getting better."

3. Flyers took away his world-class speed
McDavid may be the fastest player in the world with the puck on his stick in the open ice. In fact, McDavid's glide has more speed to it than most players' stride. If you didn't know that prior to the Flyers-Oilers game, you certainly didn't walk away with the belief that McDavid possesses the acceleration of an Italian-engineered sports car. There wasn't one time Saturday you could recall McDavid flying into the offensive zone with the puck on his stick.

"You can't let him get speed because if he does, he's gone," Laughton said. "I think that's the biggest thing. Take away his speed early, so he can't get that puck and take it away down low too. I thought we did a good job."

For Hakstol and Co., bottle up this game plan for the future. It will come in handy when the Flyers take on the Oilers on Dec. 6 in Edmonton.

The Guy
Guy Lanzi has been the Flyers' oral surgeon since 1993. In that time, Lanzi has pulled, repaired or replaced hundreds of chiclets and Friday afternoon was no different.

Simmonds sat in Lanzi's dentist chair for nearly four hours to have some extensive dental work after taking a puck to the mouth while sitting on the bench Thursday against the Predators.

"No surgery — just a lot of work," Simmonds said Saturday. "I was in the doctor's office for a while there. Couple of root canals, couple of pulled teeth replaced, couple teeth bridged. Work is not done yet. I got to go back soon."

Because of that, Simmonds was forced to wear the protective face guard to ensure a puck or stick doesn't do any more damage.

“I can't be getting hit in the mouth again or the rest of my teeth are going to fall out,” Simmonds said.

The reward for Simmonds' mouth-numbing procedure was his fist-pumping, crowd-roaring game-winner and his team-leading sixth goal and fourth game-winner of the season.

“I don’t know how many people would want to go through that and then come back and play a hockey game," Hakstol said, "but he did it, and he scored the game-winner.”

“I think just getting two points satisfies me," Simmonds said. "I’m in a lot better spirits today.”

Flyers-Oilers observations: Red-hot Wayne Simmonds plays hero in win

Flyers-Oilers observations: Red-hot Wayne Simmonds plays hero in win

BOX SCORE

For the second straight game, the Flyers were forced to get defensive, and this time, they found a way to come out on top Saturday afternoon with a 2-1 win over the Edmonton Oilers at the Wells Fargo Center.

Wayne Simmonds produced the game-winner after taking a pass from Valtteri Filppula and snapping it past Cam Talbot with 2:15 remaining in the third period.

It was a tight-checking game that played out similar to what we saw Thursday against the Predators, as the Flyers held the Oilers to 24 shots on net. Connor McDavid registered four shots on net but wasn’t much of a factor offensively.

• The Flyers jumped on the board first with the help of their first power play when Shayne Gostisbehere’s blast from the point was deflected out front by Wayne Simmonds right to Claude Giroux, who corralled the loose puck and punched it into a wide-open net for his fifth goal of the season. 

Following an 0 for 5 effort against Nashville, the Flyers needed to capitalize on the man advantage chances.  

“We just have a lot of different looks this year,” Gostisbehere said to NBC Sports Philadelphia's Chris Therien during the first intermission. “We have so many plays out there. It’s harder for other teams to prepare for us. We’re getting pucks to the net and our guys are doing what they're supposed to do.”

• Former Phantom Patrick Maroon finally got the Oilers on the board with 4:23 remaining in the second period when he outmuscled rookie Nolan Patrick along the corner boards, coming away with the puck and making a move past Ivan Provorov, before putting a shot between Brian Elliott’s pads. 

Patrick appeared to have been distracted by a broken stick along the boards that made him hesitate with the puck. The Flyers' rookie center could have elevated the puck with his backhand, but by holding onto to it for a split second too long, he allowed Maroon to come up with the takeaway.

• The Flyers got careless defensively in the opening 10 minutes of the second period as defensive breakdowns led to some quality scoring chances for the Oilers.

• The Flyers did a solid job of containing last year’s Art Ross Trophy winner McDavid, primarily deploying Scott Laughton’s line along with the Sean Couturier line sometimes during the same shift. McDavid had some extended shifts — three even-strength shifts over 1:30 — requiring the Flyers to use a multitude of forwards and defense pairs.

• McDavid left the game briefly in the first period and returned midway through.

• Jori Lehtera produced his best scoring chance of the season when he took Radko Gudas’ outlet pass and attempted to squeeze through a pair of defenders. The plodding Lehtera was unable to gain enough speed for an uncontested shot, but with his strong forearms and hands, he was able to draw a slashing penalty and still put a shot on net. 

• Last season, Giroux didn’t score his fifth goal until Nov. 29th. 

• Both Taylor Leier and Jordan Weal missed Saturday’s game with upper-body injuries. According to general manager Ron Hextall, both forwards are day-to-day. 

• Referee Ian Walsh was honored prior to the game for officiating his 1,000th career game. Flyers captain Claude Giroux presented Walsh with a framed autographed jersey signed by the team with the No. 1,000 on the back.

Lines, pairings and scratches
Claude Giroux-Sean Couturier-Jakub Voracek
Jori Lehtera-Valterri Filppula-Wayne Simmonds
Dale Weise-Nolan Patrick-Travis Konecny
Matt Read-Scott Laughton-Michael Raffl

Ivan Provorov-Andrew MacDonald
Shayne Gostisbehere-Robert Hägg
Travis Sanheim-Radko Gudas

Brian Elliott
Michal Neuvirth

Scratched: Jordan Weal, Taylor Leier and Brandon Manning