Voorhees, NJ – Although it is being labeled as the "franchise record 11-game road trip," the Flyers have had a couple chances to get home to see their families and sleep in their own beds despite not having played a home game since December 22. They were back at their practice facility on Sunday morning for a full team practice in preparation for the final three games of the journey this week in New Jersey, Chicago and Detroit.
A 3-1 win in Washington on Saturday gave the team a remarkable 7-0-1 record in its first eight games and also marked the halfway point of the 82-game regular season schedule. Philadelphia leads the NHL with 60 points, one more than the Ottawa Senators.
"With the adversity that we've faced with guys injured, it's incredible," said Mike Rathje. "We have young guys coming in the lineup playing big roles, and it's nice to see. We try to keep a good attitude around the dressing room and make everybody feel comfortable, and we just have a lot of fun around here. It's been a great first 40 games and I think the next 40 will be even better."
The Flyers' winning ways, coupled with a slump by Ottawa has vaulted Philadelphia into first place overall. The Senators had a chance to regain that position on Saturday but lost to Montreal.
Flyers Head Coach Ken Hitchcock thinks that the way opponents view both the Flyers and the Senators are similar.
"We are finding out that now, people are waiting for you. We're getting every team's A- game right now," said Hitchcock. "That's to be anticipated for the balance of the season. I think that's what Ottawa is getting. We seem to get everybody's best game and we've been in some very emotional games lately."
"We are definitely pretty happy with where we are right now with all of the injuries and things going on, but we can't be satisfied. We're in first place right now but Ottawa has a game in hand and we definitely want to be up there," said Peter Forsberg. "We're winning a lot of games lately, but I don't think we've played our best hockey. I think we can still play better as a team and work on things that we aren't doing that [well]. We still have 41 games to work on it before the playoffs come."
Philadelphia is still nursing a number of injuries, but several players should be returning back to the lineup within the next couple of weeks. Hitchcock gave the following update on the situation:
"We're anticipating Turner [Stevenson] is going to be ready for selection by Saturday. He's practiced full now in our last three practices and he looks good, so we're waiting longer than we normally would but we don't want to take a chance. Joni [Pitkanen] is going to join us immediately either Tuesday or Wednesday to skate with us.
"[Robert] Esche stopped pucks today for the first time, and he's going to go back on the ice early tomorrow morning and do the same thing. We'll see where he is tomorrow. [Eric Desjardins] is following schedule, still anticipating playing if there's no major setbacks, hopefully getting in some games before the Olympic break."
While it is good news that players are recovering, Hitchcock will have some tough decisions to make when he has those players available for use. Recent Phantoms call-ups Freddy Meyer and Ben Eager have both been impressive in their stints with the big club so far, and goaltender Antero Niittymaki has been nothing short of spectacular.
"Those are the decisions that, when you don't have to make them or when you make them because people are playing poorly it's easy," said Hitchcock. "The hard decisions are, if we continue to play well, then it's going to be a tough thing to do, because you don't want to screw around with what's working."