NEW YORK -- It's been a struggle since the puck was dropped on the 2012-13 season for the Philadelphia Flyers. A 100-point team the past two seasons, injuries and inconsistency have combined to prevent the Flyers from spending even a day above .500 this season.
The Flyers will become one of two teams to reach the midpoint of their season Tuesday by playing their 24th game, and they will do so in an important Atlantic Division battle against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN2).
After an 0-3-0 start that continued into a 2-6-0 mark, the Flyers are in eighth place in the Eastern Conference at 11-11-1, one point ahead of the ninth-place Rangers. The Flyers' position is deceiving, however, because they've played the most games in the League and rank 19th overall and tied for ninth in the East with the Winnipeg Jets in points percentage.
If the Flyers lose in regulation Tuesday, they will find themselves one point behind the Rangers, who will have three games in hand. The Flyers could fall as far as 10th in the East with a regulation loss.
Flyers forward Maxime Talbot called this game the biggest of the season.
"We battled through a lot of adversity this year and we're just coming up to .500 after the start we had. It's where we want to be right now," Talbot said. "But now it's about moving up and keep going. Yeah, we have to go through this game to keep building and keep gaining points, so I'd say, yeah, to this day, it's our most important game."
Scott Hartnell missed a month with a broken foot, but the Flyers are 3-1-0 since their leading goal-scorer from last season has returned. Hartnell has had a pretty good view of the Flyers this season and said he has seen a gradual change in the team that has led to its turnaround.
The Flyers' recent surge doesn't entirely coincide with Hartnell getting healthy; they have won five of seven dating to a 7-0 win against the New York Islanders on Feb. 18. They are averaging 3.7 goals per game over that time, and in their past three games have allowed six goals.
"I can see the accountability from each guy in the room to the coaching staff to [general manager Paul Holmgren] putting us in the lineup and getting this group together," Hartnell said. "I think that's probably the main thing. Guys aren't on their own programs. We're playing hard defensively. I think in the beginning of the year it was a lot of missed checks, a lot of soft play, and now guys are really bearing down. Definitely, I can see a difference watching the first 20 games until now."
Tuesday's contest against the Rangers starts what could be a very telling week for the Flyers. They have a home date with the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday (7 p.m. ET, NHLN-US) and a trip to face the Boston Bruins on Saturday afternoon. Flyers coach Peter Laviolette sees it as an important stretch, but no more important than any other week for his team this season.
"If we didn't win the games last week, then, you know, or if we don't win the ones after this week," Laviolette said. "They're in our division. They're rival-type games and they're with teams we need to be successful against. They're good teams. It's a tough part of the schedule for us."
Laviolette will go with goalie Ilya Bryzgalov against the Rangers, his League-leading 22nd start of the season. Flyers forward Harry Zolnierczyk begins his four-game suspension for his hit to the head of Ottawa Senators defenseman Mike Lundin on Saturday, which means Mike Knuble likely will return to the lineup after sitting as a healthy scratch the past two games.
The Flyers didn't show any line combinations Tuesday morning during their skate at Madison Square Garden, so here's a guess as to what they'll look like when the puck drops:
Scott Hartnell – Claude Giroux – Jakub Voracek
Danny Briere – Brayden Schenn – Wayne Simmonds
Simon Gagne – Sean Couturier – Maxime Talbot
Zac Rinaldo – Ruslan Fedotenko – Mike Knuble
Kimmo Timonen – Luke Schenn
Braydon Coburn – Nicklas Grossman
Erik Gustafsson – Bruno Gervais
Scratched: Kurtis Foster, Eric Wellwood
Injured: Matt Read (ribs), Andrej Meszaros (shoulder)
Suspended: Harry Zolnierczyk
Note: Wellwood was recalled from the American Hockey League on Tuesday morning, but stayed on the ice late with Read, a good indicator he will be out and Knuble will be in.