Flyers aim for quick start; Betts signed; Caps to win Cup

   The Flyers will open their season in Carolina Friday and try to avoid the slow start that plagued their 2008-09 campaign.

    A year ago, you'll recall, the Flyers lost their first six games (0-3-3) before steadying themselves and eventually finishing as the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference.

    As it turned out, the Flyers would have had the fourth seed _ and the critical home-ice advantage in the first round against Pittsburgh _ if they had accumulated one more point.

     So the early six-game losing streak, which would be their worst streak of the season, cost the Flyers dearly.

      "We weren't ready," left winger Simon Gagne said. "I think we thought it was going to be easy" because the Flyers had reached the conference finals the previous season.

      A better start this year is one of the team's goals. The Flyers have a tough early-season schedule as their first five games are against teams that look like Stanley Cup contenders: Carolina, New Jersey, Washington (my choice to win the Cup), Pittsburgh and Anaheim.

     Gagne said he is happy to start the year on the road.

    "The pressure is on the home team," he said.

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     The Flyers finally reached an agreement Thursday with free-agent Blair Betts, signing the fourth-line center to a one-year $550,000 deal and putting him on their 23-player roster for Friday's opener.
   “I’m relieved,” Betts said. “…I would rather it happened sooner than later, but nonetheless I think we made the right decision to come here.”
    Early in camp, the Flyers made it clear they wanted to sign Betts, but it took them longer than expected because they had to justify to the NHL that Mike Rathje (hip) belonged on the long-term injured list, thus keeping his $3.5 million salary off the cap and leaving room for Betts. Rathje hasn’t played since 2006.
     Betts, 29, had an impressive camp and gives the Flyers a solid penalty killer and faceoff man. He won all eight of his faceoffs in his last preseason game.
    During yesterday’s practice, Betts centered the fourth line between Dan Carcillo and Ian Laperriere. Darroll Powe, who had been the fourth-line center in the final preseason game, moved to right wing on a line with Claude Giroux and James van Riemsdyk.
    In another move, the Flyers placed Ole-Kristian Tollefsen (hip) on the injured-reserve list and recalled Marc-Andre Bourdon, 20, from the AHL Adirondack Phantoms. Bourdon will be the team’s seventh defenseman this weekend.
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    Prediction time:

    From here, it looks like the Flyers will finish third in the East with 105 points _ six more than last season. For capsules on the Flyers, a team preview and a story on how Chris Pronger will change the team's makeup, check out Friday's Inquirer.

    Here are my picks:

   Eastern Conference final: Washington over the Flyers.

  Western Confernece final: San Jose over Chicago.

   Darkhorses to watch: Montreal (East) and Vancouver (West).

   Stanley Cup Final: Washington over San Jose.