The resurgent Philadelphia Flyers have gone from the NHL's worst team last season to one pushing for the Atlantic Division lead in 2007-08. They'll look to continue their hot play Thursday when they take on the sinking New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden.
The Flyers (21-15-4) finished with the worst record in the league at 22-48-12 in 2006-07, but they've made that look like an aberration of late. Philadelphia defeated Atlanta 4-1 on Tuesday night for its fifth win in six games since a six-game losing streak.
The Flyers scored four goals in the second period, including two by Jeff Carter within a span of 13 seconds, as Philadelphia remained five points behind first-place New Jersey and four behind Pittsburgh.
Philadelphia's eighth straight win over the Thrashers improved it to 4-1 on a road trip that concludes Thursday.
"When you have a team's number, it gives you confidence," said Flyers forward Scott Hartnell, who had a goal and two assists in the second period. "You play with that confidence on the ice. This is no different."
While that confidence might have been sorely lacking last season, Philadelphia apparently didn't lose faith during the six-game skid from Dec. 11-22. The Flyers have turned it around with strong defensive play, allowing six goals in their last five wins.
Much of the credit for that goes to goalie Antero Niittymaki, who will make his third straight start Thursday. Niittymaki has won his last three starts, surrendering three goals over that span.
While the Flyers are playing with confidence, the Rangers' seems to have disappeared during a three-game road swing through western Canada last week. New York (20-18-5) came into the trip having won three in a row, but suffered losses to Calgary, Vancouver and Edmonton.
A return to MSG on Tuesday didn't help the Rangers get back in the win column, as they lost 5-3 to Tampa Bay. New York was within a game of the Eastern Conference lead on Dec. 1, but is 5-9-3 since and has fallen into a tie for last place in the Atlantic - one point behind the Flyers.
On Tuesday, the Rangers fell behind 4-1 before pulling to within one goal in the third period, but couldn't complete the comeback despite outshooting the Lightning 13-3 over the final 20 minutes.
"Everybody knows we should have won and we have to win," said Henrik Lundqvist, who made 21 saves. "Somebody asked if it was a wake-up call. That wake-up call came a week or two weeks ago."
New York was without two of its top six forwards in Martin Straka (concussion) and Sean Avery (bruised hand), while left wing Brendan Shanahan played despite a bruised knee. Avery was placed on injured reserve, while Straka's status for Thursday is uncertain.
The injury news is much better for the Flyers, who could get four players back in the lineup Thursday. Defenseman Jason Smith and forwards Simon Gagne, Sami Kapanen and Scottie Upshall all skated during Wednesday's practice and could play.
New York has won both meetings with Philadelphia this season, 2-0 on Nov. 5 and 4-3 in a shootout Nov. 15. The Rangers have won four straight and seven of eight versus the Flyers.
|Mar 25 '08||PHI 2 at NYR 1 - OT||M. Richards|
|Mar 21 '08||NYR 3 at PHI 4 - SO||M. Richards|
|Mar 02 '08||PHI 4 at NYR 5 - SO||B. Shanahan|
|Feb 09 '08||NYR 2 at PHI 0||N. Dawes|
|Jan 31 '08||NYR 4 at PHI 0||N. Dawes|
|Jan 10 '08||PHI 6 at NYR 2||S. Hartnell|
|Nov 15 '07||NYR 4 at PHI 3 - SO||B. Shanahan|
|Nov 05 '07||PHI 0 at NYR 2||J. Jagr|