PITTSBURGH - Here’s a newsflash for you: the Toronto Maple Leafs are not going to make the playoffs this season.
Neither are the Carolina Hurricanes. It’s a good bet the Tampa Bay Lightning will be trading their composite sticks for composite golf clubs come April.
The Rangers and Islanders are toss-ups to qualify in the jam-packed Eastern Conference.
That’s not a knock against the Flyers’ current 5-1-1 roll that includes wins over those teams: those are the games this Flyers team should have been winning all along this season. Those five teams have a combined record of 81-94-39 through last night.
It’s just one way of saying that tonight’s meeting in Pittsburgh with the Penguins is the Flyers’ first true measuring stick since their recent transformation took place on Dec. 23 in Tampa.
Sure, the Flyers have a lot of things stacked against them tonight:
- They are playing on back-to-back nights in different cities, while the Penguins were sitting at home waiting for them.
- They have won just twice in their last 13 regular season attempts at the Igloo.
- They waddled out of Pittsburgh with their tails between their legs as Dec. 15, when they were pounded, 6-1.
But the Flyers need these two points – and not just because a win would put them back in 8th place in the Eastern Conference. It would legitimize their bounce back, for now at least. It sure seems like a loss, especially a blowout loss, would have fans and players wondering if this team will be able to get over the hump as some point this season.
A few weeks ago, the Flyers came into Mellon Arena afraid. They had no confidence. It showed on the ice against the defending Stanley Cup champs.
If there ever was a time for the Flyers' to have their druthers and schedule Pittsburgh, it would be now. They're vulnerable. Almost exactly when the Flyers started to find their rhythm again, the Penguins lost theirs. They trounced Ottawa 8-2 on Dec. 23 and then started off a five-game losing skid with a 4-3 loss against Toronto. They followed that up with losses to Buffalo, New Jersey, Tampa and Florida (all on the road) before downing Atlanta 5-2 on Tuesday.
The Flyers are on the opposite path. For the first time in a while – probably since the middle of November – the Flyers have that swagger about them back.
“We should be excited to go and play that team, and look forward to that opportunity,” Flyers coach Peter Laviolette said on Wednesday night. “We have a good hockey team, and were starting to move and take steps and it will be a good challenge for us.”
The Flyers have a chance to reel off some serious points in the month of January, with eight of their next 10 games (after Pittsburgh) at the Wachovia Center. But they’ll have to take care of business – and answer a few tough questions tonight – first.
"Pittsburgh has given us a hard time this year," Danny Briere said. "So it's a good time to face 'em."