Streaking Penguins move atop Metro Division

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Streaking Penguins move atop Metro Division

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin each had two goals and an assist and the Pittsburgh Penguins routed the Carolina Hurricanes 6-1 on Friday night for their season-best sixth straight victory.

Jake Guentzel had a goal and two assists, Sidney Crosby scored a late goal and Olli Maatta also scored. The Penguins took control with three goals -- two by Kessel -- in a 7:39 span in the second period.

Matt Murray made 27 saves for Pittsburgh, which has won 11 of 13 to overtake idle Washington for first place in the Metropolitan Division. Since the Penguins were shut out by Carolina on Jan. 4, they are 16-3-1.

They were just as busy off the ice, completing a mid-game trade in which they picked up center Derick Brassard from the Ottawa Senators. As part of the complicated three-team deal, they sent defenseman Ian Cole to Ottawa and forward Ryan Reaves to the Vegas Golden Knights.

Teuvo Teravainen scored and Cam Ward stopped 33 shots for the short-handed Hurricanes, who have gone 0-3-1 during a four-game slide that's keeping them outside the Eastern Conference playoff race (see full recap).

Wild dominate skidding Rangers for New York sweep
NEW YORK -- Mikael Granlund and Eric Staal each scored twice and Devan Dubnyk made 22 saves in the Minnesota Wild's 4-1 victory over the free-falling New York Rangers on Friday night.

The Wild completed a three-game sweep of New York-area teams after beating the Monday night and New Jersey on Thursday night.

The Rangers lost for the sixth straight time in regulation. New York is 6-17-0 since beating Buffalo in the Winter Classic on Jan. 1 (see full recap).

Blackhawks’ Berube dominant in 1st Chicago start
CHICAGO -- Jean-Francois Berube made 42 saves in his first start for Chicago to help the Blackhawks beat the San Jose Sharks 3-1 on Friday night.

Defenseman Jan Rutta, activated from injured reserve Friday, and Nick Schmaltz scored, and Artem Anisimov added an empty-netter with 30.5 seconds left.

Anthony Duclair had two assists for the Blackhawks. They won their second straight and third in four games following an eight-game losing streak that dropped them to last place in the Central Division.

Berube lost a bid for this first NHL shutout when Timo Meier scored his 15th goal on a screened shot with 7:51 left in the third period.

Martin Jones stopped 33 shots for the Sharks, coming off a 7-1 loss at Nashville on Thursday night (see full recap).

Metro gets crazier as Flyers-Devils series ends with bang

Metro gets crazier as Flyers-Devils series ends with bang

BOX SCORE

We now know why the NHL’s Metropolitan Division is more tightly packed than the metro subway system during rush hour.

On a night when the Flyers were just 81 seconds away from separating themselves from the Devils by five points in the standings, New Jersey fought back to the tie the game in regulation before eventually winning, 5-4, in a shootout, eliminating any breathing room the Flyers were hoping to gain Tuesday (see observations).

Devils forward Taylor Hall scored a pair of goals, including the one that tied the game at 4-4 with 1:21 remaining in the third period (see highlights)

“It’s that kind of play where it’s not much we could have done. It is definitely frustrating,” Claude Giroux said. “They’re a team that’s in the race with us. It’s two points that we could’ve used.”

“Just a little breakdown. They had one extra guy there at the net front,” defenseman Radko Gudas said. “I think we’ve got to do a better job of boxing them out and know where the puck is. I thought we played a pretty solid game. There are some things we would like to change, but that’s hockey.”  

However, Hall’s first score is one shot Michal Neuvirth would like to change, and most definitely would like to have back. Hall took a sharp-angled shot from near the Flyers' goal line that squeezed past Neuvirth, who failed to secure the near-side post. It was a shot reminiscent of a similar one he allowed just two weeks ago in Washington.

“For sure, that’s the one you’ve got to have,” Neuvirth said. “That was not a good goal. I’ve got to watch it on video and definitely have got to improve on shots from bad angles because a lot of teams are shooting from bad angles. The game in Vegas, I thought I had at least 10 saves from the corners. Teams are definitely going to try me.” 

Hall sat out nearly the entire second period going through the NHL’s concussion protocol after scoring his first goal in which he was leveled by Gudas. It was Gudas who also blasted Kyle Palmieri in the game in New Jersey just two weeks ago that led to a fight with Travis Zajac. Although the divisional rivals refrained from dropping the gloves, the intensity was building as the two teams battled four times over the span of a month.

“I thought it was a clean hit,” Hall said of Gudas’ check. “I told them that on the ice. He’s a player that’s always going to finish his hits. Sometimes they’re dirty, but I didn’t think that one was.”

“[Those games] are just fun to play,” Giroux said. “Especially here, I think the fans kind of like that. We did a good job of staying focused on what we had to do. There are going to be games like that, but you've got to try to stay focused.”

Recently, the Flyers have been the stronger, more determined and focused third-period team, outscoring the opposition, 6-2, in the final period over the previous five games. The Flyers rallied to earn a point against Ottawa, stifled Carolina to just two shots on net, scored three goals against Montreal and locked down their defense against Vegas.    

After the Flyers outshot the Devils, 6-0, in the opening five minutes of the game, fatigue and jet lag appeared to catch up to Dave Hakstol’s club, playing its third game in four days. New Jersey appeared to have a little extra jump over the final 10 minutes of regulation. 

“There’s always challenges,” Hakstol said. “That’s part of the schedule now. We knew those challenges coming in. I thought the start of the game was really good for us. We had energy and we were sharp mentally. There’s just points and times in the game where a little bit of fatigue sneaks in, both mentally and physically. There’s challenges in every portion of the schedule and that was our challenge tonight.” 

“Yeah, definitely, I think everybody needs it,” Neuvirth said, regarding the rest. “It’s been really tough especially with the travel. It was definitely tough to wake up today because we were still on Vegas time, but this is a tough week and we’re all professionals and we need to be ready.” 

Neuvirth and the rest of the Flyers can now get their watches and bodies completely in sync with their next 20 games to be played in the Eastern time zone.

After all, the Metro doesn’t appear to be slowing down for any team.

Who deserves credit for Konecny's breakout party?

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Who deserves credit for Konecny's breakout party?

In the immortal words of legendary Eagles announcer Merrill Reese, “It’s goooooooooooooooooood!”

Yes, that’s true about the local football club, but also at this moment of the local hockey club, the Flyers, who rode into the weekend’s All-Star break winners of three of their four games last week and winners of eight out of 10 overall.

Last week included a 3-1 victory over the New Jersey Devils last Saturday afternoon in South Philly, a 2-1 OT win in Washington over the Metropolitan Division-leading Capitals last Sunday afternoon, a 3-2 OT triumph over the Red Wings in Detroit on Tuesday evening and a manhandled 5-1 defeat at home at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning Thursday night.

But even that ugly thud had a tough time souring the good vibes the Flyers have piled up recently, especially over the last week and change.

So let’s jump right in and dissect because Flyers Weekly Observations are back.

• There has been no greater revelation for the Flyers over the last week, and dating back before that, than Travis Konecny. The 20-year-old winger has just been setting the ice ablaze for the Flyers recently. He’s now up to 10 goals and 12 assists on the campaign. So where was this earlier in the season?

Well, for starters, it’s not the easiest thing in the world to contribute in this fashion when you’re getting third- and fourth-line minutes and having your ice time cut dramatically in the third period and in OT.

But when you put someone who possesses the offensive flair of the high-risk, high-reward Konecny alongside stars who can score and play both sides of the ice like Sean Couturier and Claude Giroux, it fosters the perfect environment for Konecny to blossom. While his lineup decisions have rightfully raised eyebrows in the past, Dave Hakstol deserves credit for this one. It’s allowed Konecny to play to his strengths. And when he plays to his strengths, the confidence exudes by Olympic long jumper-sized leaps and bounds.

And that confidence was on full display this week with tallies in all four games. His game-winner in Washington was a thing of beauty, as he powered through a defender at center ice, weaved his way into the slot and fired a wrister past Braden Holtby. Chances are Konecny wouldn’t have had the confidence to even try that earlier in the year, let alone be on the ice in OT. Same goes for his winner in Detroit two nights later when he made the smart play and got back onside before firing the puck home.

A confident Travis Konecny is a dangerous Travis Konecny, and the Flyers have a dangerous Travis Konecny on their hands.

• There’s an old adage that says the good teams find ways to win games they have no business winning. The Flyers did just that twice this week — Sunday in D.C. and Tuesday in Detroit.

On Sunday, the Caps fired 28 shots Brian Elliott’s way and he was a brick wall to keep the Flyers in the game. The Caps were controlling the flow and pace and the ice was tipped in their favor after Michael Raffl’s tally early in the second period. The Flyers had 23 shots of their own, but nowhere near the quality of chances the Caps had. But still, they persevered and stole one from the division leader. There’s something to be said for that.

In Detroit two nights later, the typically underwhelming Red Wings brought it and the Flyers were fortunate to have the game head to OT with the way they were playing late. Remember, Tyler Bertuzzi had a glorious chance late, but couldn’t finish with a basically wide-open net. But Elliott stood tall again and the Flyers left the Motor City with two more points.

If the Flyers want to instill belief, winning games like these are a good way to do just that.

• With as well as the Flyers have played recently, they are still prone to their hiccups and duds thanks to their noted inconsistency. Remember the beatdown they took at the hands of the Rangers at MSG a few weeks ago? Well, the league-best Lightning showed the Flyers who’s boss Thursday.

Tampa asserted control early and often while jumping to a 3-0 lead and Andrei Vasilevskiy locked the vault in net. The Flyers threw 37 shots at him, but he had every answer save for one.

The Lightning surely remembered how the Flyers stormed into Tampa after Christmas and ended the Bolts’ long home win streak. So consider this one payback.

And consider it a lesson learned for the Flyers because they got walloped in all phases on home ice by the league’s measuring stick.

• One absolute must for the Flyers heading into the second half of the season while pushing toward the playoffs: fix the black eye that is the penalty kill.

Here at the All-Star break, the Flyers’ penalty kill is sporting a 75.3 percent success rate, “good” for the fourth-worst mark in the NHL. Only the Ottawa Senators, New York Islanders and Edmonton Oilers have worse PKs.

That number just isn’t anywhere near good enough for a team that has its sights set on a serious playoff push.

That’s something that can be a serious Achilles Heel down the stretch here and cost the Flyers games. And every point will be oh-so-precious as the months and days of the season continue to drip away.

And that’s especially true with the parity right now in the Metropolitan Division. Speaking of which …

• That’s what we in the business call a “tease.” Anyway, back to the point at hand …

After the Flyers beat the Red Wings on Tuesday, they vaulted into third place in the Metro with 56 points. It was the highest they’ve been in the standings since the end of the 2013-14 regular season, a span of nearly four calendar years.

Two days later after the regulation loss to Tampa, the Flyers fell to the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, dangling on to a playoff spot by just a single point. Parity anyone?

Chew on this for a bit: Washington leads the division at the break with 63 points. The New York Islanders are two spots out of the playoffs with 55 points. Just eight points separate first in the Metro and two spots out of the playoffs. Heck, just two measly points separate second-place Columbus, which has 57 points, and two spots out of the playoffs.

What I’m saying is this division is wide open. Am I saying the Flyers are the best in it? Nope. But it is still wide open for the taking. It’s anyone’s ballgame. And the Flyers still have 17 games left in the division. It’s on them to make their move.

Coming up this week: Wednesday at Washington (8 p.m. on NBCSN), Thursday at New Jersey (7 p.m. on NBCSP), Saturday vs. Ottawa (1 p.m. on NBCSP).