Penguins vs. Flyers Preview

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PHILADELPHIA, PA (AP) - The Philadelphia Flyers made it to the Stanley Cup finals last spring, but they haven't known what it's like to win an Atlantic Division title since the league's pre-lockout days.

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With a win over the Pittsburgh Penguins, they'll be awfully close to finding out.

Already with a game in hand on the Penguins, the Flyers can open up a commanding seven-point division lead with a regulation victory Thursday night when the intrastate rivals square off in Philadelphia.

According to NHL odds and oddsmakers from online sports book have made the Flyers -160 money line favorites for Thursday's game against the Penguins. Current NHL Public Betting Information shows that 58% of more than 12,675 bets for this game have been placed on the Flyers -160.

New Jersey has claimed four of five Atlantic titles since the 2004-05 lockout. Pittsburgh (42-23-8) won the other in 2007-08.

After last year's stunning run to the Stanley Cup finals as the Eastern Conference's seventh seed, Philadelphia (44-19-9) is closing in on its first Atlantic crown since 2003-04 - and one of the top two seeds in the East as it begins defense of its conference title. Even with the Flyers' current five-point cushion and a game in hand on the Penguins, Pittsburgh has a chance to get back in the hunt with the teams meeting twice in the next six days.

"It's a big game - a four-point swing," Penguins center Jordan Staal told the team's official website. "It's another big challenge for our team to see where we're at. We want to come out with a strong effort."

Philadelphia missed out on a chance to push its division lead to six points Tuesday against Washington, but considering how things started, coming away with one point wasn't so bad. The Flyers fell behind 3-0 early in the second period, but rallied to take a one-goal lead before ultimately losing 5-4 in a shootout.

That pulled the Capitals within a point of Philadelphia for the East's No. 1 seed - the Flyers have two games in hand - but coach Peter Laviolette was still pleased with his team's performance.

"I thought we had our best game in a while," Laviolette told the NHL's official website. "The guys were motivated and there was lots of energy. The building was alive tonight and it was a different atmosphere for everybody. I thought that it was the best offensive attack that we have had in a long time."

The Penguins' latest game was almost a carbon copy of Philadelphia's shootout loss. Pittsburgh built a 4-0 lead at Detroit on Monday before allowing the Red Wings to pull even, but James Neal's shootout goal gave the Penguins a 5-4 win and a much-needed second point.

The Penguins currently have a three-point lead on Tampa Bay for fourth in the East - the final spot with home-ice advantage in the first round - but according to coach Dan Bylsma, all the focus right now is on catching the Flyers.

"They're in our sights," Bylsma said. "We've gotta win two games against them to think we have a chance of getting them."

That may be easier said than done. Though the Penguins won 5-1 at Philadelphia on Oct. 16, the Flyers have won this season's other three meetings by identical 3-2 scores.

Philadelphia hasn't seen Pittsburgh since Sidney Crosby went down with a concussion, and it certainly won't miss the former Hart Trophy winner. Crosby had two goals and four assists in his last three games against the Flyers.

While Crosby has long tormented Philadelphia, Claude Giroux has only recently grown into that role versus Pittsburgh. The Flyers' 23-year-old winger, who leads the team with 44 assists and 68 points, has four goals against the Penguins this season.

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