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Philadelphia Flyers right wing Wayne Simmonds (17) controls the puck in front of Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby (70) and defenseman Karl Alzner (27) during the second period of an NHL hockey game, Saturday, March 4, 2017, in Washington. (Nick Wass/AP)
Philadelphia Flyers right wing Wayne Simmonds (17) controls the puck in front of Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby (70) and defenseman Karl Alzner (27) during the second period of an NHL hockey game, Saturday, March 4, 2017, in Washington. (Nick Wass/AP)

Leafs will need to keep Flyers’ Simmonds in check Add to ...

No matter what style of hockey is being played in the NHL, Wayne Simmonds will always be in vogue.

Even if most lineups these days feature whippets who can stickhandle as fast as they skate, coaches will always take a big winger like Simmonds who parks himself in front of the goaltender and whacks rebounds into the net. If opposing defencemen don’t like it, the Philadelphia Flyers power forward will knock them on their butts and/or deliver a knuckle sandwich if needs be.

If the Toronto Maple Leafs are to keep the Flyers behind them in the playoff race, then dealing with Simmonds in Thursday’s game should be near the top of the priorities list. While the 28-year-old Toronto native has been a little less productive lately – two goals in his past six games – with 27 goals and 17 games left in the season he is in position to beat his career high of 32 from last year.

More than one Flyers observer feels Simmonds has been the team’s most valuable player this season.

“He’s been great for us all the way through,” Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol said. “He competes at all different levels. He’s a leader off the ice.

“The things he brings to the table, day-in and day-out, that people don’t have any idea of … are what makes him a real stalwart in our locker room and in our lineup. … Everybody knows he’s one of the top power forwards in our game [but] some people don’t know the quality of the character and the person.”

As the 6-foot-2 Simmonds sees it, the job remains the same for him no matter what kind of game those around him are playing.

“For me, it’s get the puck to the speed guys, that never changes,” he said. “I play with some pretty good players so I get the puck, give it to them and get my boots moving.” His boots are always moving toward the net, ready to convert a pass or deflect a shot from centre Claude Giroux or left winger Jordan Weal.

“It’s all about getting in front of a goalie’s eyes, taking his eyes away, getting opportunities,” Simmonds said. “If you get opportunities, you’ve got nothing to worry about.”

But opportunities were not presenting themselves to the Flyers much this season. That is why their 6-3 win over the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday night was much more important than just the fact it brought them to within one point of the Maple Leafs in the chase for the last Eastern Conference wild-card playoff spot.

All six goals for the Flyers came during five-on-five play, which was a boost for the team’s confidence since it was the first time they scored that many goals five-on-five this season. Going into the Sabres game, in five-on-five play the Flyers had been outscored 127-91 and only 69 per cent of their goals came at even-strength, which was at the bottom of the league ranking.

“The whole team’s had trouble scoring,” Simmonds said. “[Tuesday’s] game, that was huge for us. Every game we’ve had is one or two goals. It’s a tight league, there’s a lot of parity, anyone can win on a given night. You have to make that extra play, get that extra goal to get those extra points.

Thursday’s game, the Flyers’ second of a four-game trip, is one of the most important of the season for both teams. With 72 points, the Leafs are one point behind the New York Islanders, who hold the second and last Eastern Conference wild-card spot. The Flyers are two points behind the Leafs, who were given Wednesday off by head coach Mike Babcock.

Adding to the fun for Simmonds is that he will be playing in his hometown with a large group of family and friends from the old Scarborough neighbourhood sure to be in the seats at the Air Canada Centre. Even after nine years in the NHL that never gets old.

“It’s always fun to come home, though, see friends and family, and play in this atmosphere,” Simmonds said. “I enjoy playing here. I relish every chance I get to play in Toronto.”

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