Flyers-Penguins Preview

The Associated Press

The Philadelphia Flyers have made just one visit to Pittsburgh in the last 12 months, but they could find themselves spending quite a bit of time in the Steel City in April.

Sunday's first of two meetings at Consol Energy Center over the regular season's final week could be just the beginning for the Flyers and Penguins, who appear to be on a collision course to open the playoffs in western Pennsylvania.

That might not be a bad scenario for the Flyers (45-24-9), who have never lost in four visits to Consol and could now find themselves playing there as many as six times in the next three-and-a-half weeks.

There's still plenty of positioning to settle in the Eastern Conference, but barring something unusual, Pittsburgh (48-24-6) and Philadelphia will open the playoffs against one another for the second time in four years. The Penguins trail the Atlantic-leading Rangers by five points for the conference's top seed, meaning they're currently in the No. 4 spot despite having the East's second-most points.

Philadelphia trails Pittsburgh by three points, and has a comfortable lead over sixth-place New Jersey even after Saturday's 4-3 shootout loss to Ottawa. The Flyers rallied from three down after one period to grab a point, and were quick to look ahead to the first of what could be quite a few matchups with the Penguins.

"I think it's important to be able to play our best hockey against them," center Claude Giroux, held without a point for the third straight game, told the league's official website. "It's going to be a big game for us and especially on the road. We've been doing a good job on the road. We have mot make sure we're doing the same thing (Sunday)."

After a pair of surprising losses to the last-place Islanders, the Penguins bounced back with Friday's 5-3 win at red-hot Buffalo.

"It's not as easy as just having one game and thinking you're there, it's a process,'' Sidney Crosby said after his third four-point game in 18 this season. "You just try to take everything in stride, whether you have a good one or a bad one and try to get better.''

The Flyers can't be too happy about having to play another afternoon game Sunday. They're 4-8-3 in matinees this season and have been outscored in the first period of those games 24-6 after an ugly opening 20 minutes Saturday.

They did, however, handle the Penguins during the day March 18, snapping Pittsburgh's 11-game winning streak with a 3-2 overtime win - after naturally falling behind 2-0.

That was Philadelphia's third win in four games in this season's series, and they're 6-1-1 in their last eight against their intrastate rivals. Crosby, however, has only played in three of those eight contests.

Crosby has rarely had trouble producing against the Flyers - he has 48 points in his last 29 regular-season games in the series - but Pittsburgh could use more from Evgeni Malkin. The NHL's leading scorer has just nine points and is minus-4 in eight games versus Philadelphia since the start of last season.

The Penguins' star-studded duo could catch a break Sunday. Ilya Bryzgalov, who was 10-2-1 with a 1.43 goals-against average in March, is doubtful after sitting out the past two games with a chip fracture in his right foot.

Sergei Bobrovsky, though, has plenty of experience winning in Pittsburgh. He's been in net for all four of the Flyers' victories at Consol, allowing two goals in each while posting a .929 save percentage.

While Philadelphia will look to get Giroux going - he has five assists against the Pens this season - its fortunes could come down to whether Scott Hartnell can score. The Flyers are 22-4-3 when Hartnell finds the back of the net in 2011-12, and 6-0-0 when he scores against the Penguins since Dec. 13, 2008.

Pittsburgh and Philadelphia conclude the regular season at Consol on April 7.

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