Philadelphia Flyers in Hot Pursuit of N.J. Devils for Atlantic Crown

lyndon juden-kellyContributor IFebruary 26, 2009

The Philadelphia Flyers are currently positioned in fourth place in the Eastern Conference, with 75 points and at least one game in hand on all of the contenders in the East.

In the race for the Atlantic Division, Philly sits four points behind the New Jersey Devils with a game in hand. The teams will meet in New Jersey on March 4 and again on March 23 for their matchup in Philadelphia.

Both teams are about to get back essential pieces to their respective puzzles. New Jersey is welcoming back their storied goaltender Martin Brodeur. 

Brodeur recently underwent successful surgery on his left (glove side) bicep, which has kept him out of the lineup since November 1.

As for the Philadelphia Flyers, they will be seeing Daniel Briere return to action after missing all but nine games with a chronic groin problem.

Brodeur will be returning to a team which has been riding organizational depth at the goaltending position all year, putting at least a little bit of pressure on the future hall-of-famer.  Brodeur will certainly feel the heat if he's unable to perform up to expectations early in his return.

As for the Flyers, Briere will be returning to a lineup that already boasts five 20-goal scorers, with Joffrey Lupul just on the outside looking in with 17 goals. This should ease the pressure on Briere in-so-far as the team isn't solely relying on him to produce.

With the teams separated by just four points, play down the stretch will be crucial in determining who will come out on top.

For the Flyers, it may come down to a very important 18-day period in March that will see them play their longest home stretch of the season; with five games in nine days. 

Afterwards they'll head out on the road for their longest remaining road trip of the season, facing the Rangers, Red Wings, Sabres, and Penguins before returning home for their date with the Devils on the 23rd. 

The Devils will not see back-to-back home games in the month of April as they play every other game on the road.

There is no doubt that both teams will gain a boost from their returning stars. With both teams experiencing relative success already, Brodeur's return tonight and Briere's return on Friday may give these teams the edge they need to be legitimate contenders in the 2008-09 playoff push.

The Devils will look to improve in the month of February, which has seen them go just 6-4. For the Flyers, February has seen them go 7-3 and has allowed them to climb back into the race for the Atlantic Division.  They look to finish off strong with a win over the Montreal Canadiens on February 27, to extend their winning streak to three. 

How important is the Atlantic crown?

In all likelihood, the team who fails to win the Atlantic will probably finish in fourth, which has been historically a more dangerous place to finish because the No. 5 seed would have to play the best team which did not earn home ice in the playoffs.

As for the team who does take the division, they could challenge Washington for the second seed in the conference; however, the first place Boston Bruins may be untouchable at this point unless they continue to slide having lost six of their last eight.

With the majority of teams looking elsewhere for that extra player who could get them over the top, all the Flyers and Devils have to do is make sure they have cap room and roster space for players that already have a commitment and an understanding with the teams they will be rejoining.

There is plenty of hockey to be played yet, but at this point every game matters and every point acquired will make a difference. There is no question that both the Devils and the Flyers know how to win, which will certainly make for some interesting hockey down the stretch.