'Canes visit Flyers with playoff hopes bleak for both

PHILADELPHIA -- Barring a miraculous stretch run, the Philadelphia Flyers (32-30-8) and Carolina Hurricanes (30-27-12) play more for pride (and contracts) than for points in the Eastern Conference standings when they face off Sunday night in South Philadelphia.

Both teams are seven points out of a playoff spot with 12 games remaining for the Flyers and 13 for the Hurricanes.

But while the Flyers lost four of their last five games and are coming off a 6-2 setback in New Jersey Thursday night, the Hurricanes are 4-0-2 in their last six and coming off a 4-2 victory over Nashville on Saturday night.

Since winning 10 straight games back in December, the Flyers are 13-20-5 and closing in on becoming the first team in NHL history to win 10 straight games and miss the playoffs in the same season.

"The consistency is something we obviously need to address," Flyers goaltender Steve Mason told Phillynews.com. "We can't go from having one of our best games all year against Pittsburgh (a 4-0 win Wednesday) and then come around the next night against Jersey with that kind of outcome and overall team game.

"It's something we continually seem to talk about. That's what makes good teams; that's what separates them is the consistency on any given night."

Mason (20-20-7, 2.76 goals-against average, .905 save percentage) left Thursday night's game with leg cramps but practiced with the team Saturday and is expected to get his ninth start in 10 games on Sunday night.

In 13 career appearances against the Hurricanes, Mason is 8-4-1 with a 2.24 GAA. Flyers backup Michal Neuvirth is 7-3-1 with a 2.67 GAA and one shutout in 12 career games versus Carolina.

Mason's performance over the final three weeks of the regular season could determine whether the Flyers sign him to a contract this summer, when he is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent. Defensemen Michael Del Zotto and Nick Schultz, and forwards Jordan Weal and Chris VandeVelde also are in the final year of their contracts.

The Hurricanes are expected to turn to Cam Ward (23-20-10, 2.69, .904), who sat out Saturday's game in favor of Eddie Lack. Ward is 11-11-4 with a 2.71 GAA in 27 career games against the Flyers.

Jeff Skinner recorded his team-high 24th and 25th goals of the season Saturday.

"It's pretty obvious when he gets hot and you get him around the net he's tough to defend," teammate Jordan Staal said after Saturday night's victory. "I know I wouldn't want to defend him. He's quick, he's smart and he finds pucks around the net. He's just a natural goal scorer who can change the game in an instant."

Skinner recorded 25 or more goals in four of his six full NHL seasons, but has yet to appear in a playoff game.

"That's why you play the game, to win," Skinner said. "Whatever your role is you try to do it to the best of your ability. For me, that's to produce offensively. It's always nice to contribute to a win and do your part."

Sunday marks the start of a four-game road trip for the Hurricanes, who also visit Florida, Montreal and New Jersey. They close the season with six of their final nine games at home, with their season finale coming April 9 in Philadelphia.

The Hurricanes, who have the lowest payroll in the NHL, have a handful of players in the final year of their contracts, including forwards Patrick Brown and Derek Ryan.

The Flyers defeated the Hurricanes in two of their three meetings this season, but Carolina won the last encounter 5-1 on Jan. 31 in Raleigh when rookie forward Sebastian Aho recorded his first career hat trick.

Flyers defenseman Brandon Manning is expected to return to the lineup after missing three games with an undisclosed injury.