Penguins Notebook: Flyers pose new set of challenges

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The Penguins never had beaten Philadelphia more than five times in a season before winning the first six meetings this season. They never have swept a season series from their cross-state rivals.

Tonight, the Penguins look to make it 7-0 against the Flyers after winning the first six games by a combined score of 32-14. They meet for the final time March 4.

Although Philadelphia has been hampered by injuries and is mired in last place not only in the Atlantic Division but also in the NHL with 33 points before their road game last night against the New York Islanders, things have not been quite so bad lately.

The Flyers were on a 2-1-2 stretch going into the game last night.

The Penguins, meanwhile, have been climbing up the Eastern Conference standings and with a win could find themselves in fourth place, depending on what Ottawa and Montreal do tonight and tomorrow.

"It's obviously a rivalry game, but I think more than anything we need the points. This is for fourth place," defenseman Ryan Whitney said yesterday after the Penguins practiced at Mellon Arena.

"They've played better [lately]. They've got a lot of guys back from injury. It's obviously been a tough year, but they're playing hard."

Melichar ready to return

Penguins coach Michel Therrien said defenseman Josef Melichar, who has missed 11 games because of a strained ligament in his left knee, is ready to return.

Therrien wouldn't say whether Melichar will be in the lineup tonight or, if he is, who he would replace on defense. The Penguins have been dressing the minimum six defensemen regularly.

Winger Nils Ekman has been out since getting a serious left elbow injury in a game Dec. 30 against Toronto. He continues to skate with conditioning coach Stephane Dube before practice.

Defenseman Eric Cairns has been out since Nov. 10 with concussion symptoms.

Shero has goals for USA

Penguins general manager Ray Shero doesn't have strong ties to USA Hockey. In fact, his most memorable moment with the national team program was in 1981, after his freshman year at St. Lawrence University, when his knee was injured in training camp for the World Junior Championships.

Shero also attended several U.S. Olympic Festivals, which used to be in non-Olympic years under the direction of amateur federations such as AHAUS, the Amateur Hockey Association of the United States, which was the forerunner to USA Hockey.

"I've known people involved and been around it some," Shero said. "At the Olympic Festivals, I remember watching [former Penguin] John LeClair when he was a teenager before he played at Vermont and [retired player] Brian Leetch when he was just going into his freshman year at [Boston College]. They had some great players coming through there."

Now Shero will have a hand in the national team selection process, first for the World Championships this year and perhaps for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.

He is one of four NHL general managers who this week were named to the first National Team Management Advisory Group by USA Hockey.

Shero hopes the restructuring will help the NHL and USA Hockey dovetail better so that the United States can get stronger internationally.

"We need to make some progress on it," he said. "We need those players to contribute and play. We need to set a precedent the way Canada does.

"No one's turning down Team Canada for the World Championships. We don't want to have to beg and borrow players to play."


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