-- The Philadelphia Flyers
have no intention of lowering their guard in their final game before a seven-day break for the holidays.
The Flyers, riding a five-game win streak and sitting atop the NHL with 49 points, host the Florida Panthers
on Monday here at Wells Fargo Center.
"If we do (lower our guard), we'll lose," coach Peter Laviolette
told the media following his team's morning skate. "We have to be ready to play a hard-working team."
For the Flyers and Laviolette, being regarded as the best team in the League is new territory. Not until the final game of the 2009-10 regular season -- a shootout victory against the New York Rangers
-- did Philadelphia begin its surge, peaking at the right time prior to the start of a long run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Even then, they qualified only by the slightest of margins.
So is it a good or bad omen that the team is peaking much earlier than it did last season?
"I'm not sure I have an answer for that," Laviolette said. "That's a crystal ball answer. There were some teams, like Chicago last year, who had good (regular seasons) and did really well in the playoffs. You want to win as many games as you can. You want to do as well as you can and give yourself the best opportunity for home ice. That's what you're striving for during the regular season."
While Danny Briere
does believe a team could peak too soon, he isn't at all convinced the Flyers have reached that point.
"I think a team could peak too soon, but at the same time I really don't feel like we're peaking at all," he said. "I look at our game and there's so much more out there that we can achieve. Look at my line (with Ville Leino
and Scott Hartnell
) … we've been OK and played fairly good, but we're not finishing a lot of our chances. It's tough to evaluate fairly because I'm mostly evaluating my line's play when we're on the ice. It feels like we have so much more we can reach. We've shown what we can do last year."
Briere, whose 16 goals are tied for the team lead with Claude Giroux
, feels the Flyers have their priorities in order.
"You have to be careful," Briere told NHL.com. "You can't look too far ahead. You have to keep everything in perspective. You can't look past your next opponent. We've been very good at doing that, but at the same time we're not winning a Stanley Cup today, and that's the ultimate goal. We're trying to set ourselves up to be in the best position possible come spring time."
For the next 4-6 weeks, the club will be without one of its mainstays on defense, Chris Pronger
, who had surgery to fix a broken right foot on Friday. While the loss hurts, no one in the Flyers locker room believes the situation is hopeless by any stretch.
"Look, Chris Pronger
is a big piece of the puzzle," Briere said. "He's one our leaders and one of our best players, but at the same time, it doesn't feel like we're going to miss a beat. The other five guys with him on defense have been logging a lot of minutes in key situations as well. So even if you lose one, we're still fine. Now, we can't wait to have him back in our lineup … I'd be lying if I said otherwise. But I think we can do very well and survive without him."
Pronger's absence on Saturday in a 4-1 victory against the Rangers presented defenseman Oskars Bartulis
an opportunity to prove to the coaching staff that he can contribute when called upon.
"It was a little tough; I missed 20 games before that but I felt pretty good," said Bartulis, who played for the first time since Nov. 1. "My first two periods and the third I started to feel a little bit out of game shape, but it'll come. I know I just have to play my best and hardest every night. I need to show I can play here because I need to prove myself since I didn't play for a while."
Bartulis played 12:51 and led the team with four hits.
"We've had a good run with the players in there and Chris (Pronger) out," Laviolette said. "We wish he was in there, but Oskars did a nice job coming in and there were increased minutes."
Briere, who hasn't scored in four games, feels the reason for success has been the club's stellar defensive play. The Flyers allow 29.2 shots per game, 11th in the League, and are third overall with a 2.32 goals-against average behind goalies Sergei Bobrovsky
(2.32 GAA) -- who will get the start Monday -- and Brian Boucher
The Flyers are an impressive 19-0-2 when leading after two periods.
"We haven't given up a lot of scoring chances against," Briere said. "We make it tough on opposing teams to come in here and not just beat us, but creating chances to score."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale