Simmonds scores two goals as Flyers clinch playoff spot

Simmonds scores two goals as Flyers clinch playoff spot

PHILADELPHIA - During the Christmas holidays, the Flyers were floundering near the bottom of the Eastern Conference. During a trip to the West Coast, they paid a visit to owner Ed Snider, who has been battling illness.

Snider told the team then that he wanted them to make the playoffs.

A little more than three months later, the Flyers honored their owner’s wish.

Wayne Simmonds scored a pair of goals and Steve Mason made 18 saves as the Flyers defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-1.

The victory, as well as losses by both Detroit and Boston, clinched a playoff spot for the Flyers for the first time since 2014.

“You get a little emotional when you start to think about it,” said Flyers captain Claude Giroux, when asked about Snider, who has not been able to see the team in person for several months, a franchise he’s owned since their inception 49 years ago. “But we know he’s happy that we made the playoffs.”

The win by the Flyers also snapped the Penguins’ season-long, eight-game winning streak, although Pittsburgh (48-26-8, 104 points) will enter the NHL playoffs as the hottest team in the NHL, finishing the regular season on a 14-2-0 clip.

“This game was a little taste of what it’s going to be like next week,” said Penguins center Oskar Sundqvist. “It’s good to get one of those in our back pocket before the playoffs start.”

While the game meant nothing to the Penguins, it meant a ton to the Flyers. For a while though, it looked like the Flyers were dealing with the same demons of sluggishness that led to three consecutive losses leading into Saturday’s game.

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Unable to find much energy or jump in the opening period, the Flyers struggled to get quality shots on Penguins goalie Matthew Murray.

Meanwhile, Nick Bonino gave the Penguins the early lead when he took a saucer pass from Carl Hagelin and slid the puck past Mason on a 2-on-1 breakaway.

However, the Flyers took advantage of a cold goaltender to knot the score with only their second goal in the first period in the last 12 games.

After Murray had to leave the game following a collision with Flyers forward Brayden Schenn, backup Jeff Zatkoff replaced him.

A little more than a minute later, Zatkoff saw the goal light flashing behind him after Simmonds tipped Claude Giroux’s pass past him for his team-leading 31st goal of the season.

Murray will be re-evaluated when the team returns to Pittsburgh and a medical update is expected Monday. However, it’s likely that Murray is going through a concussion protocol because he was hit in the head by a hard-skating Schenn.

“We regret that he got hurt,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan, doing a bit of Monday morning quarterbacking. “When you play hockey though, you always run that risk. We felt like we made the best decisions for our hockey team that were going to put us in a position to move forward.

“I think [Zatkoff] did a terrific job though. That’s not an easy thing to do to come in cold like that, especially when you haven’t played in a little while. He did a great job for us and made some big saves, especially on the penalty kill.”

He stopped 22 of the 24 shots he faced. It would have been a perfect outing for Zatkoff had it not been for Simmonds.

Simmonds was also credited with the game-winning goal in the second period when defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere’s shot from the point caromed off his hip and past Zatkoff.

From there, the Flyers (40-27-14, 94 points) stifled the Penguins, limiting their chances and holding Pittsburgh to 19 shots for the game.

And when the Penguins did get the odd high-percentage chance, Mason was there to thwart it, with no better save than a sprawling glove stop on Kael Mouillierat mere seconds before Simmonds’ tying goal.

“There are probably three or four points in the game that are huge points of the game and that was certainly one of them,” said Flyers coach Dave Hakstol, who will make the playoffs in his first season as an NHL coach. “It was a huge save at a huge time.”

Pierre-Edouard Bellemare added an empty-net goal in the final minute, sending the capacity crowd -- and the Flyers bench -- into a celebratory frenzy.

Following the season finale on Sunday against the New York Islanders, the Flyers will open the playoffs next week against the President’s Trophy-winning Washington Capitals.

While Sunday’s game against the New York Islanders will mean little to the Flyers, the Penguins will watch with great interest as their first-round playoff opponent is still to be determined between the Islanders and New York Rangers.

Meanwhile, the Flyers will likely rest some of their top players and prepare for the start of the second season.

“It’s a great step and one the players should be very proud of,” Hakstol said. “I’m proud of them. That said, I know what the expectation level is for this group. We feel like we’ve been a good team since Christmas. We’ve been pushing hard and put a lot into it and this one of the rewards for the guys. Step one accomplished, but that’s it - just step one.”

NOTES: The Penguins didn’t care how the result of their game impacted the NHL playoff race. They only care about themselves. As such, they came into their final game of the season in Philadelphia and decided not to dress either C Sidney Crosby or D Kris Letang. Although it was the biggest game of the season for Philadelphia, the outcome had no bearing on Pittsburgh, as it had already locked up the No. 2 seed in the Metropolitan Division. ... Flyers coach Dave Hakstol continued to juggle his lineup looking for the right combination of players to try and help his team stop their longest losing skid since early February. After scratching C Nick Cousins in place of C Scott Laughton against Toronto on Thursday, he once again flipped the forwards. Cousins centered a third line with LW Matt Read and C Sam Gagner continuing to play right wing. ... Despite G Michal Neuvirth declaring himself ready to play, Hakstol stuck with G Steve Mason between the pipes. Neuvirth appeared to have been pulling ahead of Mason for the starting gig in March before injuring his left knee prior to a game against Pittsburgh. He missed nine games, and Mason played brilliantly in his place, and again has a hold on the No. 1 goalie spot. ... Penguins RW Kael Mouillierat, who was recalled from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the AHL before the game, made his NHL debut. ... Other healthy scratches for Philadelphia included G Ray Emery, C R.J. Umberger, C Jordan Weal and D Evgeny Medvedev.