Flyers set to host Penguins, imagine that

Peter Laviolette and the Flyers open the 2012-13 regular season Saturday against Pittsburgh.

Close your eyes and you can still picture Claude Giroux drilling Sidney Crosby into the boards off the opening face-off of Game 6, then scoring the goal less than a minute later.

Visualize 19-year-old Sean Couturier beating Marc-Andre Fleury to complete a Game 2 hat trick. And don’t forget how the frazzled Penguins kept taking runs at Giroux, Couturier and Brayden Schenn, with James Neal and Arron Asham drawing suspensions.

Well, you don’t have to use your imagination anymore. The puck drops 3 p.m. Saturday to start the NHL’s 48-game sprint to the playoffs. And to whet our appetites, guess who they have squaring off in the opener? You got it.

“I kind of figured they’d do something like that after last year’s playoffs,” said defenseman Braydon Coburn, one of the cornerstones on a blueline that sees Luke Schenn replacing Matt Carle, while Andres Meszaros (recovering from a torn Achilles) is questionable. “You talked to anybody who watched, that was one of the most exciting series. We have a great rivalry with those guys.”

Despite  their first-round flameout, Crosby, Evgeni Malkin & Co. are still considered by many to be the team to beat.

“It’s gonna be a great game,” said right wing Jake Voracek. “Everyone’s pumped up for the season to start. Obviously, the end of last season for them wasn’t the way they wanted. That’s why they’re gonna come in harder.”

The Flyers are convinced that they have the firepower and checking to beat their cross-state rivals. If Ilya Bryzgalov does his part in goal, they feel there’s no reason they shouldn’t win.

“It’s gonna be a great test,” said Couturier, who will be on a line with Voracek and Matt Read — until Danny Briere makes it back from a hairline fracture of the wrist. “I’m starting to get used to the rivalry. It’s big. We’ve got to find a way to get the two points and start it out the right way.”

The Flyers head right to Buffalo Sunday and play seven games in the first 11 days, including a date with the Rangers here next Thursday.

“I don’t think you can pace yourself,’’ said Voracek. “We’ll be playing Pittsburgh, the Rangers. It’s not gonna be easy.”

No, it won’t. But at least they’re finally playing. Imagine that.

Games to watch

Following Saturday’s opener vs. the Penguins, here is a look at other game to watch this season. We’re calling it our Great 8, away we go:

» Jan. 24, vs. NY Rangers: The Flyers went 0-for-6 vs. the reigning Atlantic Division champions, including blowing a 2-0 lead in the Winter Classic. Solving Henrik Lundqvist has always been a problem and now the Rangers have added Rick Nash to their arsenal. The rematch is five days later at the Garden.

» Feb. 1, at Washington: Alex Ovechkin & Co. have a new coach in one-time Flyer Adam Oates, and return most of their top guns. They also have goalie Braden Holtby, last year’s rookie playoff sensation, who has been keeping sharp by playing in the AHL. Expectations remain high for the Caps, after they nearly upset the Rangers to make the Conference Finals.

» Feb. 11 at Toronto: The big question is will James van Riemsdyk still be healthy by the time he’s due to face his old club for the first time? At the other end, how will defenseman Luke Schenn react going back to his old stomping grounds? The Leafs haven’t been to the playoffs since Jeremy Roenick’s overtime goal eliminated them in 2004.

» Feb.  20, at Pittsburgh: Peter Laviolette’s crew has fared quite well since the Penguins moved to the Consol Energy Center, including a 2-1 mark in last year’s playoffs. No matter what happens here, Sid the Kid and his friends will either be out to avenge a season-opening loss or to build on an opening-game victory. They’ll meet two other times after this.

» March 15, vs. New Jersey: First visit by the team that ended the Flyers’ playoff dreams. If nothing else 40-year-old Martin Brodeur should be well rested thanks to the lockout. But it was New Jersey’s relentless forechecking that doomed the Flyers last May — and most of those Devils are back.
» March 30, vs. Boston: Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas has vowed to sit out the season, leaving Tuukka Rask between the pipes. But Boston still has top scorers Tyler Seguin, Brad Marchand, Milan Lukic and Patrice Bergeron, not to mention mountainous defenseman Zdeno Chara.  Besides, they always give the Flyers fits.

» April 3, vs. Montreal: The Canadiens may not be the team they used to be, but they still bring a colorful history, some of it courtesy of the Flyers. The franchises have split six postseason matchups.  Look at their roster and you will find a lot of unfamiliar names.

» April 27, at Ottawa: The regular season concludes at Scotia Bank Place, where the Flyers have lost eight of their last nine. That means they are hoping to have playoff seeding secured by that point, rather than needing to beat the Sens. Jason Spezza, Milan Michalek, Eric Karlsson and 40-year-old captain Daniel Alfredsson are Ottawa’s main men.

From there it’s onto the playoffs — they hope.


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