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Hitchcock Continues to Play With Lines

by Staff Writer / Philadelphia Flyers

Voorhees, NJ – While the Flyers are currently 5-0-1 on their 11-game road trip, one area of concern for Ken Hitchcock has been that the line of Peter Forsberg, Simon Gagne and Mike Knuble has not been as productive as it was at the beginning of the season.

Having said that, the trio has been at the mercy of the opposing teams' top defensive combination due to the fact that home team gets the last line change.

Forsberg gave his input on the situation after the team skated on Wednesday morning at the Sovereign Bank Flyers Skate Zone.

"We've been playing road games lately and every game they have played their best defensive line," he said. "On the other hand, Simon has been sick [with the flu] and I haven't been playing good, so I don't think it's been too hard to stop us lately. Plus, we've been up one goal late in the game so we don't try to do too much and we're trying to play safe and win the game, so it's been successful that way.

"As a line, though, I think we have to be better. We have not been as good as we've wanted in the last five games."

Hitchcock has been tinkering with the line lately, moving Knuble off of it for some practices but keeping it together for the majority of game action. R.J. Umberger was the last to practice with Forsberg and Gagne and spent all of one shift on the line during a game in Atlanta on December 28. Jeff Carter, who has been playing well, practiced on the line on Wednesday.

"We're experimenting, whether it's at practice or maybe we might take some changes into the games, but we feel like we need a secondary push," said Hitchcock. "We're finding things tightening up in the second half of the season. We feel like we've got to have better secondary scoring in our lineup.
"We want to look at these things in practice before we feed them into the games. We know what works, and we want to see how these things look in practice."

Knuble, who has been as steady as anyone in the Flyers lineup this season and is currently second on the team in goals with 19, skated with Michal Handzus and Sami Kapanen. The future U.S. Olympian didn't mind the switch.

"There are a lot of guys I enjoy playing with on this team," said Knuble. "Certain guys play different ways and different styles, and Peter and Simon play a certain way and then Handzus is such a terrific passer and Sami has come back and played extremely well since he's been back. I feel I can play with either set."

Carter, who got a look on the line in training camp, has felt good lately. He has a goal in each of the last two games, including the only score in Monday's 1-0 victory in Boston.

"I'm where I want to be right now," said Carter. "I feel good on the ice, and things are starting to go well."

Thoughts on Madison Square Garden

The Flyers will play the Rangers for just the second time on Thursday night when they train up to New York for a game at Madison Square Garden. The two teams have been battling it out for first place in the Atlantic Division for most of the season, but have not met since the first game of the season on October 5 at the Wachovia Center. New York won that game, 5-3, scoring three times in the third period.

It will be Forsberg's first visit to New York as a Flyer, and he is looking forward to it.

"They are right on our heels in the division right now and every game we play against them is going to be big. I think it's exciting, though. For me, it's my first time playing for the Flyers up there at MSG," he said.

"All of the good old arenas, there's a lot of tradition and a great atmosphere playing in them. Madison Square Garden is one of the rinks you always read about since you grew up and it's going to be exciting."

Hitchcock is a little more blasé about the trip to New York.

"Every talks about it like it's the greatest building in the world and everything. I find it to be another hockey game," he said. "The one thing I do like about it is the fact that it has a lot of history when you can see the pictures on the walls when you come in from other events that have taken place. But, for me, it's another place to play hockey.

"This is a good team we're playing and they kicked us pretty good in the second half of the game in Game One, and we kind of owe them one."

The Flyers lead New York by six points in the Atlantic Division heading into the matchup.

Esche, Pitkanen Skating

Hitchcock updated the conditions of goaltender Robert Esche and defenseman Joni Pitkanen after Wednesday's practice. Esche is out with a groin injury, while Pitkanen is recovering from a sports hernia.

"[Esche] skated very aggressively with goaltender movement today in the hopes of stopping pucks either tomorrow or the next day. He was on the ice for almost 50 minutes today, and did every goaltender activity without the puck today. The next phase is stopping pucks, which we're assuming will be either tomorrow or Friday.

"Joni skated very aggressively today, like a normal pre-game skate he did today. So, he's coming along real quick."
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