When the Philadelphia Flyers (21-10-9) take the ice tonight against a Minnesota Wild (20-16-3) team that has recorded back-to-back shutouts against the Colorado Avalanche and Boston Bruins, it will start a very important stretch.
Fresh off their season-high six-game road trip, in which they were 2-2-2, the Flyers begin a three-game homestand tonight before heading out on the road again for seven of their next nine.
Riding a four-game point streak (2-0-2), the Flyers begin a stretch tonight tied for first place with the New York Rangers. After facing-off tonight with the Wild, the Flyers have a favorable schedule in the month of January in which they face Eastern Conference basement dwellers Tampa Bay Lightning twice, Florida Panthers twice, Atlanta Thrashers, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Western Conference cellar dweller St. Louis Blues.
The Atlantic division has been a dogfight for the last three seasons, with every team, with the exception of the New York Islanders, battling for the top spot.
As of right now, the Rangers and Flyers are at the top of the division with 51 points, with the Flyers having two games in hand. The New Jersey Devils are a step behind with 49 points, but with a game in hand on the Flyers. Lastly, the Pittsburgh Penguins, who are an atrocious 5-11 in their last 16 games, are still in the race with 44 points.
Looking at the Flyers' schedule, the month of January seems to be a perfect month to separate itself from the rest of the Atlantic.
The Penguins have a three-game Midwest road trip, along with division tussles with the Rangers and Devils.
The Rangers, who have played six more home games than road games, are about to embark on a five-game road trip before returning home to face Carolina and Anaheim, and then heading out on the road again to face Pittsburgh and the red-hot Boston Bruins.
The Devils, who are shockingly right in the mix of the division race, despite not having world-class goaltender Martin Broduer, are starting to fall in love with Scott Clemmensen.
After facing Atlanta tonight at home, the Devils, just like the Rangers, embark on a long road trip. For the Devils, it is a six-game trip that sees them heading out to the West Coast. Montreal, Pittsburgh, as well as a trip to Boston await the Devils when they return.
I know every team plays every division team six times and every conference opponent four times, but the Flyers have the bulk of their tougher opponents out of the way.
Montreal: 3 out of 4
Carolina: 4 out of 4
Washington: 2 out of 4
New Jersey: 4 out of 6
Pittsburgh: 3 out of 6
The only Eastern Conference powers the Flyers still haven’t faced yet are the Boston Bruins. In addition, they still have five matchups against the New York Rangers in the next few months.
Although on the schedule it looks easy, no game is a guaranteed win in the NHL.
If the Flyers can take care of business in their next nine games, winning a good majority of them, they should set themselves up for the home stretch in the closing months.
And help is on the way for the Flyers.
Center Daniel Briere, who has only taken part in nine contests this season, hopes to be back this Saturday at home vs. Toronto. If not, next week is probable, but Flyers fans will be crossing their fingers because Briere’s groin injury is similar to that of Peter Forsberg’s two years ago and it can reappear at any time.
Defenseman Ryan Parent could be in the lineup as early as Saturday night as well, as he continues a rehabilitation stint with the Phantoms.
Right wing Joffrey Lupul is said to be ahead of his original two-week departure for an abdominal strain.
Antero Niittymaki should be back in about a week.
However, there is still that salary cap problem that will eventually catch up to the orange and black. When Parent, Lupul, and Briere all return, it will put the Flyers about $1.8 million over the salary cap.
The Flyers have to make a move, and it seems more and more like Briere is turning into trade bait. Briere, who hasn’t been worth the $10 million the Flyers are paying him this season, has to waive a no trade clause, and I don’t see that happening.
The Flyers might have to say goodbye to Lupul, who has been hot lately with the “Sky Line” that consists of himself, Jeff Carter, and Scott Hartnell. Lupul signed a four-year contract in the summer time and could very well be a name that suits many other teams. Mike Knuble, Scottie Upshall, and Randy Jones are other names floating around the rumor mill.
General Manager Paul Holmgren has a tough decision to make. In addition to the decision being tough, it also has to be a quick one.