While the Pittsburgh Penguins sit comfortably atop the Metropolitan Division, their in-state rivals are in a heated battle to earn a playoff spot.
The Philadelphia Flyers better get accustomed to facing top-notch competition down the stretch.
Philadelphia looks to avoid a third straight defeat while Pittsburgh – possibly down two key players – seeks a fourth consecutive road victory in the series as these clubs open a home-and-home set Saturday.
The Penguins (44-17-4) hold a sizable cushion in the division and lead the fourth-place Flyers (33-25-7) by 19 points after beating Washington 2-0 on Tuesday. Philadelphia fell 2-1 to New Jersey that same night, and it now must focus on succeeding against a gauntlet of playoff contenders in the coming weeks.
Including Sunday’s rematch with the Penguins, each of the Flyers’ next 11 games are against opponents currently holding playoff slots in their respective conferences. They’ll begin a four-game homestand Tuesday against Chicago, followed by dates with Dallas, St. Louis and Los Angeles.
"You’ve got to beat the best to be the best," forward Wayne Simmonds said. "We seem to play better when we play teams that are at the top of the conference or teams that are doing well. It’ll be good for us. It’s going to tell us at the end of the season whether we’re going to the playoffs or not."
Captain Claude Giroux assisted on Nicklas Grossman’s goal Tuesday and has four goals and four assists over his last five games. He went scoreless as the Flyers ended a three-game skid to the Penguins with a 2-1 win Nov. 13 in the last meeting, but he had eight goals and 12 assists during a 10-game point streak – including playoffs – versus Pittsburgh prior to that contest.
"It’s going to be a good test to know how we play against those kinds of teams," Giroux said. "We’ll have to make sure mentally we’re ready to go."
The Penguins have won three straight after Sidney Crosby scored his 31st goal and Marc-Andre Fleury recorded his fifth shutout Tuesday, but they received some bad news Friday when James Neal was diagnosed with a concussion.
Coach Dan Bylsma isn’t sure when Neal, second on the team to Crosby and Chris Kunitz with 22 goals, will be back in the lineup.
"You don’t know if you’re talking about 1-2 days or much longer," Bylsma said. "You hope the symptoms subside and it’s shorter (rather) than longer."
Kunitz sat out practice Thursday after crashing into the goal post in the third period against Washington, but he returned to the ice Friday. Bylsma said Kunitz has "bumps and bruises," and that his status for this contest is unclear.
Though Pittsburgh has earned at least one point in eight of 10, it hasn’t scored more than three goals in six straight games.
"We’ve played a little bit too much on the defensive side," Bylsma said. "We need to play in the offensive zone better. We know exactly how playoff hockey is won and playing defense – playing team defense, giving up two goals or less – is where it’s at."
Fleury has been a major reason for that, allowing three goals during the three-game win streak and posting a 2.05 goals-against average over his last 10. It’s unclear if he or backup Jeff Zatkoff will get the start in the first of the back-to-back.
Ray Emery made 30 saves in the last matchup with Pittsburgh, but Steve Mason has started each of the Flyers’ six games since the Olympic break.
Crosby has scored in three straight meetings, including a 4-1 win over Philadelphia on Oct. 17.