Voorhees, NJ – Listening to Head Coach Ken Hitchcock talk about the Flyers' young players, it is easy to sense both the pride that he has in them presently as well as the excitement for the future that the current group should provide for many years to come.
With the injury report not only long but full of some of the organization's top talent, the Flyers rookies and prospects have been thrust into the spotlight without much time to prepare. While Jeff Carter, Mike Richards and Antero Niittymaki have all been there since the start, the roster has also featured such players as Freddy Meyer and R.J. Umberger who began the season with the Phantoms and are now contributing to the parent club in a major way.
Hitchcock had a front row seat for the Phantoms' Calder Cup run last season, and attributes much of the calmness, composure and talent level of those players to the fact that many of them were able to win that championship together.
"When you have to go through what they went through to win the championship, I think that's where players mature and grow," said Hitchcock. "They've always said that one playoff game is like 10 league games. I think you saw that. When the game was on the line and it was a 2-1 hockey game (Tuesday night in Columbus), you saw a lot of players' levels go up. I think it's because they've been in those games before and it feels familiar. They know what they have to do. All of those young guys did all of the right things when the game was on the line in the third period."
The time on ice that Hitchcock has given these players reflects the coach's confidence in them. Meyer was on the ice for over 16 minutes on Tuesday night. Umberger, Carter and Richards all logged at least 12 minutes on the ice.
"I think having watched them play in the playoffs last year, you had a lot of confidence in them. But, this is also the National Hockey League. This is a men's league. You're always wondering if they can keep up physically and they've been able to do it. They are strong physically," said Hitchcock.
"Carter is a big guy. So is Umberger. Richards is a tough guy. [Joni] Pitkanen (who is currently out with a sports hernia) gained 15 pounds, and he's played against the best players in the world and he's an absolutely dominant defenseman. Freddy and Dennis [Seidenberg] are thrown into the mix here on the back end and don't have 40 games between them in the NHL and they do well. Sure, it's surprising, but I think it's also the fact that the players refuse to lower the bar."
While the results have been good recently as Philadelphia has been able to gain ground on the New York Rangers in the Atlantic Division (trailing by four points with four games in hand), Hitchcock can't help but wonder about the future of the franchise with such a solid core group.
"Where we're at today, we're still a pretty good hockey club if we get healthy," he said. "We're very good. But, where are we going to be two years from now? I mean, holy smokes, when their offensive production catches up to their level of determination and grittiness, we're going to have a special group of players around here. You've got six, seven or eight guys here who are going to be in the prime of their careers and are going to be fun to watch."
Flyers Focus on Canucks
The Vancouver Canucks, tied for first place in the Northwest Division with 40 points, will visit the Wachovia Center on Thursday night as the Flyers play their sixth straight Western Conference opponent.
"It should be a good test for us. It seems like all of these games against the West have been extremely close," said Mike Knuble. "There haven't been any easy games. We expect more of the same tomorrow, and probably a little bit more wide open than what we've seen the last two games with Minnesota and Columbus."
The game will feature arguably the two best players in the world from Sweden: Peter Forsberg and Markus Naslund.
"He plays hard every single game he's out there," said Forsberg. It doesn't matter who he plays against. I won't care if it's him or not, it's just business on the ice."
Forsberg and Knuble practiced on a line with Sami Kapanen on Wednesday, as the rotation of wingers for that line continues.
"It's more for Mike. Mike's better on the right side for the way Peter plays," said Hitchcock. "He shows more speed. We put him on the right side and he's able to use his speed and his strength. Anybody that plays with Kapanen ends up having a good game because Sami is such a complete player."
FLYERS NOTES Hitchcock said that Robert Esche will start on Thursday, Niittymaki will play in St. Louis on Saturday and then Esche would be back on Monday when the Flyers host Buffalo. … Matt Ellison, Ben Eager and Eric Chouinard were all reassigned to the Phantoms on Wednesday.