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Battle for the Atlantic

by Joe Siville / Philadelphia Flyers
Flyers prepare for division foes; Gagne practicing with team

Related content: Flyers-Rangers Preview/Game Notes

(Voorhees, NJ) - Last year it was quite the opposite, with the Flyers looking up at the top teams in the Atlantic. This year, in a lot of respects, things are different.  Entering the final leg of their eight-game road trip, the Flyers begin another slate of games that will make an enormous impact in the standings with the next seven games all coming against Atlantic Division opponents.

The Flyers open their division series against the New York Rangers, a team many predicted to walk away with the Atlantic Division title, on Monday in a nationally televised broadcast (7:00 p.m., Versus).

While the Rangers did not get off to the start they wanted, they are quickly moving up the ranks in the division carrying a three-game winning streak into the game including having won four of their last five contests to even their record at 6-6-1.
Mike Knuble sets up in front of Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist during a preseason game on September 29 at the Wachovia Center. (Getty Images)

“They’re huge games,” said Danny Briere after Sunday morning’s practice at the Virtua Center Flyers Skate Zone. “It’s good we put ourselves in a good position early so far this season, but at the same time as soon as there’s a little let down, somebody jumps and somebody’s right after you, so all the games are big. These ones coming up will be critical to set us up for the rest of the season.”

Philadelphia currently sits atop the division with an 8-4-0 record and 16 points, two points ahead of the Islanders and three ahead of both the Rangers and Penguins. While division opponents have been scarce thus far accounting for just two of their 12 games, both have been wins (3-1 over the Islanders on Oct. 13 and 4-0 against the Devils on Oct. 18).

Another statistic the Flyers are certainly aware of is that the Rangers have all of their wins at home, boasting a 6-2-0 record at Madison Square Garden.

As Flyers captain Jason Smith notes, though, playing on the road against a tough opponent is nothing new for Philadelphia this year.

“We’ve kind of been taking them game-by-game all year long and we’ve getting good results,” said Smith. “Obviously the [Rangers] are playing well now, and there are a lot of good players you’ve got to be aware of on the ice. We just have to play strong defensively in our own zone and just play an all-around solid game.”

That game might get a big boost as All-Star left wing Simon Gagne skated with the team for the first time since the game in Florida on October 24 and is preparing for a possible return to the lineup for Monday night’s game.

“I feel pretty good,” remarked Gagne. “I skated by myself [Saturday] and I felt fine and basically today was the first practice in a long time. I was a little nervous, but I felt pretty good, so it’s a good sign.”

It’s also a good sign that concerns surrounding Gagne aren’t so much about the dizziness he had felt, rather about getting back into game shape after being off the ice for the last week and half.
“I think I have a chance to play [Monday],” he said. “We [himself and Head Coach John Stevens] talked a little bit before practice that they want me to push myself and be honest in how I feel. It will be a tough game if I play, my legs are going to be a little tired, but I think I’m really close to playing.”

After shuffling the lines up for the past five games, Stevens isn’t the only one happy to see Gagne progressing and getting back on the ice.

“Simon is a huge part of our offense, and he has been for the last few years,” said Mike Knuble. “He’s a leader in our dressing room too, and plays in all situations on the ice, so he’s just a great all-around player.”

“It’s still an early season game and we haven’t had a lot of time to build some chemistry with anybody yet,” added Briere. “I think throughout our lineup you can see here and there, that there are duos that are forming, but at the same time I’m very happy Simon’s back.”

Rivalry Exciting for Players and Fans Alike

With the Eagles taking on the Dallas Cowboys in a Sunday Night Football matchup, rivalries are nothing new to the city of Philadelphia and it clearly applies to all sports. So as the Orange and Black take on the Blueshirts of New York, the feeling is not only shared by fans, but the players as well.
“I’ve heard that and I’m excited,” said Briere. “I can’t wait to be part of it and to really get into it. It’s going to be fun. Rivalries are another easy source of motivation and I can’t wait to really be in the heat of it.”

One particular Flyer has seen both sides of the rivalry.

“When I played in New York, coming to Philly, they were always great games,” added former Ranger Mike Knuble. “Now being on the other side, you know the game’s going to be hard, its going to be a hard hitting game, good skating game, so they’re entertaining games. As far as the players, they feel the rivalry, too. We’re pretty close in proximity and they’re awesome games, a lot of fun to play in.”

After facing the Rangers, the Flyers travel to Pittsburgh on Wednesday and New Jersey on Thursday, before returning to Philadelphia to open a four-game homestand and play five of their next six at the Wachovia Center, beginning with the Penguins on Saturday, November 10.
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