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Atlantic: At the quarter pole, Flyers earn solid grades

by Chuck Gormley / NHL.com

Mike Richards, who leads the Philadelphia Flyers with 13 goals and is second to Danny Briere with 26 points, said he’d give his team an A-minus.
When the Philadelphia Flyers shot out of the gates with a 6-1 record to grab hold of the Atlantic Division lead, coach John Stevens asked that everyone wait to pass judgment on his team until the 20-game mark.

Well, here we are, 22 games into the 2007-08 season, and the Flyers have climbed back to the top of the division, along with the rival New York Rangers, with a respectable 13-7-2 record. In other words, the Flyers are 7-6-2 since starting the season with a bang.

So what kind of grade would the Flyers give themselves at the quarter mark of the season?

“I’d give us a high B,” Flyers right wing Mike Knuble said. “The team has done well. We came out great, but it’s been a little inconsistent of late. That’s why I’d drag us out of the A’s.”

Mike Richards, who leads the Flyers with 13 goals and is second to Danny Briere with 26 points, said he’d give his team an A-minus, while goaltender Marty Biron used his own grading method.

“I don’t like giving grades,” Biron said. “I think we’ve been good, with room for greatness.”

Through 22 games, the Flyers have gotten strong play from their special teams, have been solid at even strength and have been dominant at home, where they are 6-1-2. But everyone in the locker room believes there is room for improvement.

“We still have another level we have to find,” said third-year center Jeff Carter, who is on pace for 30 goals this season. “We all know where it is, we just need to get there.”

Offensively, the Flyers have been led by Briere (12 goals, 16 assists) and Richards (13 goals, 13 assists).

Briere started the season on fire, with four goals and three assists in his first three games. But he netted just three goals over the next 16 games and was invisible in many of those contests. Briere clearly missed linemate Simon Gagne, who has been sidelined the past three weeks with concussion symptoms.

Regardless, he was called into the second-floor office of General Manager Paul Holmgren last week and responded with five goals and three assists in his next three games.

Richards, meanwhile, has blossomed into one of the NHL’s best two-way players. He entered this week with points in eight of his last nine games and is logging ice time on the first power-play unit, the first penalty-killing unit and is taking every key faceoff in both zones.

It would be a stretch to suggest Richards will continue on his 48-goal pace, but his consistency through the first quarter is certainly worthy of All-Star consideration, even though he is not on the ballot and says he is not skilled enough to be an All-Star.

The Flyers also have received solid support scoring from forwards Joffrey Lupul (six goals, 10 assists), R.J. Umberger (three goals, 10 assists) and Carter (eight goals, four assists), but the play of Mike Knuble (six goals, six assists) and Scott Hartnell (three goals, two of them empty netters) has been suspect.

”We’d like to get more guys on board,” Knuble said. “The guys in the room need to believe we’re a good team. Are we in the elite yet? I don’t know. That’s to be seen. But we can get there easily.”

After averaging 29 goals and 60 points in his first two seasons with the Flyers, Knuble is on pace for just 22 goals and 44 points. Hartnell is on pace for just 11 goals and 19 points, not exactly the kind of production the Flyers expected when they gave him a six-year, $25.2 million contract.

Knuble said one problem the Flyers are having is getting the eight new players on their roster – Briere, Lupul, Hartnell, Kimmo Timonen, Jason Smith, Jim Dowd, Riley Cote and Rory Fitzpatrick – ingrained in being Philadelphia Flyers.

“When you join a new team you’re thinking about your old team,” Knuble said. “Philly is still not ‘we,’ it’s ‘them.’ We’ve got to get these guys to the ‘we.’ It’s been 2 1/2 months. Now is the time to buy in.”

Defensively, the Flyers are worlds better than they were a year ago when they finished dead last in the NHL in goals allowed 297) and goals allowed per game (3.62). The addition of shot blockers Lasse Kukkonen and Jason Smith, along with the puck-rushing abilities of Kimmo Timonen, Braydon Coburn and Randy Jones gives the Flyers a very balanced attack on the blue line, where last season’s panic has been replaced by calm decision-making in front of goalies Marty Biron and Antero Niittymaki.

Stevens said he expects the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference to remain a “dogfight” all season, but is pleased with the position in which his team has put itself heading into December.

“Overall, we’ve given ourselves a chance every night,” he said. “I’d like to see a more consistent effort where we dictate the pace of the game more. We seem to react sometimes instead of setting the tempo. I’d like to see us play with a little bit more of an attitude.”

Straka

Around the Atlantic -- Rangers left wing Martin Straka returned to the lineup after missing 15 games with a broken finger, but had to leave in his first game back with a hamstring pull and is listed as day-to-day. Rangers coach Tom Renney eventually would like to see Straka on a line with Chris Drury and Jaromir Jagr. … Devils right wing Jamie Langenbrunner has been hot lately with assists on six straight goals over three games. The Devils’ four-game win streak has coincided with defenseman Colin White’s return to the lineup. To accommodate the big blue liner’s return to game shape, coach Brent Sutter has dressed seven defensemen. … The Islanders entered this week without scoring more than two goals in eight straight games, but somehow managed to go 4-4 in that stretch, thanks to goalie Rick DiPietro. The Isles have netted just 13 goals in those eight games, forcing coach Ted Nolan to try enforcer Chris Simon on a top line with Mike Comrie and Bill Guerin, and dropping Sean Bergenheim to the fourth line. … When Penguins center Evgeni Malkin had his 15-game point streak ended Saturday, it marked the longest scoring streak in NHL history for a Russian-born player. The Penguins’ offense is beginning to wake from its early November slumber. Since scoring just 23 goals over 10 games and going 2-7-1, the Pens have hit their stride with 10 goals in their last two wins and have won two in a row for the first time since Oct. 23.

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