SI Staff
Monday December 22nd, 2014

Off The Draw

It’s hard not to smile at a story like Rob Zepp’s. On Sunday night, the Flyers’ 33-year-old rookie goalie made his NHL debut, and thanks to an overtime winner off the stick of Philadelphia’s Jakub Voracek, Zepp became the oldest netminder to win his first NHL game.

It’s been a long and winding road for the Newmarket, Ont., native—one that included two drafts and took him to Finland, Germany and Lowell, Mass. There was no real reason to believe that there’d ever be a place for him in the NHL, but sometimes in the goalie business, it’s all about luck and opportunity. Finally, 13 years after the Hurricanes selected him in the fourth round of the 2001 NHL draft (which was actually two years after the Thrashers had taken him in the fourth round), Zepp got to live out his dream. Flyers starter Steve Mason went down with an upper-body injury last Friday, and Zepp joined the team on the road. Backup Ray Emery started on Saturday in Toronto, leading to Zepp getting the nod on Sunday night in Winnipeg. He made 25 saves and Philly rallied from a two-goal deficit in the third period to tie the score at 3–3. Voracek sealed the win for Zepp just 10 seconds into overtime.

NHL
Blue Jackets revival, Brodeur bungle in NHL's plus/minus for week

It was the Flyers’ fourth win in their last six games, and the victories over the Maple Leafs and the Jets were a perfect way to begin an eight-game road trip that will extend well into the New Year. If Philadelphia keeps improving its lackluster 5-9-3 record in away games, the Flyers could play themselves back into playoff contention in the middling Metropolitan Division. Right now, they are six points out of the final wild card spot in the East. It’s a sizeable gap to overcome, but it’s not impossible. Back on Dec. 22, 2013, the Rangers were six points out of the wild card race too. They went on to play for the Stanley Cup.

Still, for that to be a viable hope for Philadelphia, there are some issues that need to be resolved—namely on defense, where the team produces less than 25% of its shots. And though the Flyers currently have two of the top three scorers in the NHL—Voracek leads the league with 44 points, while Claude Giroux ranks third with 40—the production drop-off from there (Wayne Simmonds, with 14 goals and just 23 points) is precipitous.

Last season, New York turned things around with a strong January, going 10-4-1 while playing mostly at home. The key for the Rangers was that they were in postseason contention at the trade deadline, when they dealt for Martin St. Louis. The big difference for the Flyers, however, is that help will almost certainly have to come from within. Saddled with a handful of untradeable contracts, GM Ron Hextall will need a small miracle to acquire a key piece and/or unload an albatross at the 2015 deadline. The talent that is already on the roster will need to step up. Matt Read, a two-time 20-goal scorer, has scored only three times this season, and off-season acquisition R.J. Umberger has a dismal stat line: 3 goals, 3 assists, –10.

Bringing the best out of what’s on hand could simply be a matter of Philadelphia believing in itself once again. And with the Flyers giddy after winning for journeyman Zepp, hope remains.  — Sarah Kwak

What to watch tonight

Play our new daily fantasy hockey game!

Penguins at Panthers (7:30 p.m. EST; TVA, SN, Root, FS-F)

Get ready for the rematch. Pittsburgh’s 3–1 win over Florida on Saturday was physical and nasty (the teams combined for 76 penalty minutes), with a lot of hits (55), scoring chances and excellent goaltending (80 shots). Penguins winger Steve Downie dropped the gloves with Panthers defenseman Erik Gudbranson after the latter had had given Sidney Crosby a stick to the chops a few minutes earlier. Pleasantries aside, Florida will have to solve Marc-Andre Fleury, who made 45 saves on Saturday. In his last 13 games, Pittsburgh's keeper has put up some dizzying numbers (10-1-2; 1.80 goals-against average, .940 save percentage), and is the hottest goalie in the league. He’s been the key reason that the Penguins earned points in each of their last seven games, including five victories. If Pittsburgh has room for improvement, it’s on the power play. The Penguins went 0 for 6 against Florida with the man advantage, and looked a little out of sync with Chris Kunitz re-joining the unit after having missed the previous eight games with a fractured foot. Expect him to play more effectively on Monday night. The game will also mark a special homecoming for the Panthers’ Vincent Trocheck—the 21-year-old center grew up in Pittsburgh. — Brian Cazeneuve
 
Sharks at Ducks (10 p.m. EST; CSN-CA, PRIME)

San Jose has turned its season around by playing exceptionally well at home, where the team has won eight straight, including a 3–2 thriller against the Blues on Saturday. Marc-Edouard Vlasic tied that game with just 21 seconds left in regulation, and Brent Burns won it at 4:22 of overtime. The victory capped a perfect 5–0 homestand, and completed a 10-game span in which the Sharks went 9-1 while climbing back into the thick of the playoff hunt. No team has enjoyed the type of extended home schedule that San Jose has had: Since Nov. 16 only two of the Sharks’ 13 games have been on the road. Now they head out to take on Anaheim, a team they defeated 4–1 on the road in October, and 6–4 in San Jose on Nov. 29. The Pond, however, has not been especially hospitable to the Sharks—San Jose has won only four of its last 12 games in Anaheim. But if goalie Antti Niemi, who has been especially hot while winning his last seven starts, remains in form, you have to like the Sharks’ chances.
 
The dinged-up Ducks, after their own seven-game winning streak (which ended on Dec. 16), have been headed in the opposite direction during the past week, with bad losses to the Maple Leafs and the Senators in their last three games. In each of those defeats, Anaheim surrendered six goals. Sniper Corey Perry has missed the last seven games with a knee injury and is listed as day-to-day. Defenseman Francois Beauchemin is also practicing, but he remains doubtful after missing 12 straight games with a broken finger. — Brian Cazeneuve
 
Rest of the schedule: Senators at Capitals (7 p.m. EST; RDS, TSN5, CSN-DC); Predators at Blue Jackets (7 p.m. EST; FS-TN, FS-O), Coyotes at Canucks (10 p.m. EST; FS-A, SNP), Flames at Kings (10:30 p.m. EST; SNW, KCOP-13)

What you may have missed

• Before their game against the Hurricanes at Madison Square Garden on Sunday, the Rangers were among the New York pro sports teams that offered a show of support to the families of police officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, who were shot and killed while sitting in their squad car in Brooklyn on Saturday.

• Bruins defenseman Matt Bartkowski was ejected on Sunday for laying a vicious hit (video) on Brian Gionta that knocked the Sabres winger out of the game. Bartkowski reportedly won't face further discipline from the NHL for the play.

•​ Scary moment on Saturday as Vancouver winger Jannik Hansen collapsed on the bench after taking a hit from Calgary defenseman Dennis Wideman. Hansen, fortunately, was later seen walking around near the team’s dressing room while undergoing testing.

•​ Embarassing moment for the Flames on Saturday as they scored an own goal that traveled the length of the ice during a delayed penalty.

• Alex Ovechkin scorred a goal of the year candidate in Washington’s 4–0 victory over the Devils on Saturday.

• The lowly Avalanche were able to get a win over the Red Wings on Sunday, but it took a nine-round shootout for Colorado to pull it off.

•​ Check out Detroit goalie Petr Mrazek’s festive holiday mask, featuring some pretty unique decorations.

• Antti Raanta was masterful in net and Patrick Kane had a big night as the Blackhawks shut out Toronto on Sunday.

The numbers game

• Sizzling Tyler Seguin leads the NHL with 25 goals, and also tops the league with seven multi-goal games. He’s now the second player in Stars history to score 25 times in the team’s first 32 games of a season. The other: Dino Ciccarelli in 1981–82 and ’86–87.

• The Rangers have posted eight shutouts (a league-leading total) in their first 31 games of a season for the first time since 1928–29, when John Ross Roach manned the pipes. That team reached the Stanley Cup finals, but New York lost to Boston.

• The Avalanche’s Calvin Pickard is now is the first rookie goaltender in franchise history to allow no more than one goal in each of three consecutive starts during a given season.

Hot links

•​ With the World Junior Championship tournament on tap (Canada takes on Russia in a pre-competition game in Toronto tonight), here are 10 players not named Connor McDavid who are worth watching.

•​ Chris Stewart, in his coach’s doghouse and hoping for a trade out of Buffalo, thinks he would be a good fit in a classic sweater known for its famous spoked-B crest.

•​ Different season, same old bugaboo for St. Louis, which is still dogged by the flaw that has derailed some of their most promising teams.

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