Penguins, Flyers meet for first time since playoffs

A few weeks ago, the Pittsburgh Penguins sat in last place in the Eastern Conference. On Saturday, they face the team that replaced them in that spot.

A 3-1-2 stretch has lifted Pittsburgh (10-9-5) a couple rungs out of last place and the Philadelphia Flyers (10-12-2) have fallen into last, thanks to losing six of their past seven games, going into the teams’ meeting at PPG Paints Arena.

Things are bad enough with the Flyers that they fired general manager Ron Hextall earlier this week, and that leaves the future of coach Dave Hakstol in question. Not to mention personnel changes.

“Our job is to win, and right now we’re not doing that,” Philadelphia center Sean Couturier told the Burlington County Times. “A (possible) trade or whatever is part of the business.

“We have to turn the switch on. We’re still pretty confident in this group. We have some talent. We have some skill. It’s about going out there and proving it.”

This is the first meeting of the season between the longtime bitter and cross-state rivals, and their first game since the Penguins ousted the Flyers in the first round of the playoffs last spring.

Given the nature of the rivalry, Pittsburgh isn’t counting on a down-and-out opponent.

“We obviously know they have really good players, high-end players,” Penguins winger Jake Guentzel, who had 13 points in six games in the opening-round win last spring, told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

“They’re a good team. We know it’s going to be an emotional game, a rivalry game. We have to expect their best and have our best.”

Pittsburgh could get feisty winger Patric Hornqvist back. He has missed three games because of a concussion.

Hornqvist returned to practice Friday.

“I was back out there, and I felt good,” Hornqvist said. “It’s heading in the right direction.”

He had four goals and eight points in five games before he got hurt.

Both clubs have had some trouble with the goaltending spot, particularly Philadelphia, which has used five goalies this season for a combined .879 save percentage, worst in the NHL, and a 3.58 goals-against average.

De facto starter Brian Elliott is expected to miss another week or so because of a lower-body injury.

Michal Neuvirth has played just one game because of injuries, but he could return from a groin injury to start against the Penguins.

Like Couturier, Neuvirth wonders if Hextall’s firing is just a first step.

“If you don’t start winning games, more changes are going to come,” he said.

Pittsburgh is without No. 1 goalie Matt Murray, who went on injured reserve on Thanksgiving and is out “longer term,” according to coach Mike Sullivan, because of a lower-body injury.

Before his injury, Murray, a two-time Stanley Cup winner, was struggling. He has a 4.08 goals-against average and an .877 save percentage.

Sullivan said the Penguins have a time frame in mind for Murray’s return, but he declined to reveal it.

Young goaltenders Casey DeSmith and Tristan Jarry are filling in for Murray. It appears DeSmith will get the larger share of the work, and he is expected to start against the Flyers.