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Flyers head into November playing top hockey

by Mike G. Morreale
The Philadelphia Flyers would prefer not to have their playoff hopes tied to a shootout on the final game of the regular season this season.

Not that they don't have the experience -- see Game 82 against Henrik Lundqvist and the New York Rangers last season. But having matters settled a few games earlier would relieve some of the built-up tension within the locker room.

One month into the 2010-11 campaign, the defending Eastern Conference champion is making that wish a reality.

The Flyers closed October with their first three-game win streak of the season following victories against Buffalo, Pittsburgh and the New York Islanders. They enter November third in the conference with 13 points (6-4-1). That's the highest they've climbed through one month of the season since 2002-03 when they were first with seven victories and 16 points.

It's a step in the right direction for a team that, at times, is guilty of inconsistent efforts.

The Flyers never won more than four straight during the 2009-10 regular season, twice producing three-game streaks and posting four-straight victories on four occasions. Somehow, though, they managed six straight in the playoffs beginning with Game 4 against the Boston Bruins in the conference semifinals.

"Sometimes it's all about motivation and being ready to play every night," forward Danny Briere said. "I like that we have a team that shows up for big games and, hopefully, we can put ourselves in a bit of a position where we don't have to fight in the last game of the season just to make the playoffs."

Maybe this team enjoys teetering on brink of elimination, giving their coaches gray hair and their fans sleepless nights. Then again, if that were the case, the outcome in Game 6 in the 2010 Stanley Cup Final against the Chicago Blackhawks would have taken a different twist.

Maintaining some level of consistency is, according to defenseman Sean O'Donnell, "the magic thing" for which every team strives.

"You see it with teams like Detroit, Pittsburgh … teams that just keep pushing themselves, pushing themselves and pushing themselves," O'Donnell said. "I think that's what separates them. There are a lot of talented guys in this League and a lot of talented teams, but it's the teams that can bring it every night. After you win three in a row, push it and try and win the next one even if you go into a tough building on back-to-back nights."

Inconsistencies aside, there's plenty to like about the Flyers after the season's first month.

Briere is scoring near the same level he was at in last spring's playoffs; forward Claude Giroux has taken his game to another level; and rookie goalie Sergei Bobrovsky has been nothing short of remarkable in his first season in North America.

Briere finished the month tied for the team lead with 6 goals, and needs just two more assists to reach 300 in his NHL career.

Briere feels Giroux, who has 6 goals and a team-leading 11 points in 11 games, has been one of the team's top forwards.

"We talk about him and how skilled he is … highlight reels that he'll wow you with," Briere said. "The most impressive part to me is his competitiveness and how much he wants it, how much he battles out there. It's one thing to have the skills and have the vision and everything, but the way he battles, it's great to see and it's contagious for the rest of the team."

Bobrovsky, who earned a roster spot in training camp following the back injury to playoff hero Michael Leighton, has become much more than a capable fill-in. In seven starts, the undrafted free agent signed out of Russia this past May, is 5-2-0 with a 2.45 goals-against average and .917 save percentage.

His lateral movement from post-to-post is what has been most impressive.

"He's up there among the best I've seen," Briere said of Bobrovsky's quickness. "He's young (22), we don't want to put too much pressure on him, but things are looking up if he keeps it going. He could turn out to be something special. But like I said, we don't want to get too excited too quick, so let's give him the chance to play more games before that."

The Flyers really haven't had to rely on one line this season for offense. Aside from the fact coach Peter Laviolette hasn't really established set trios, there seems to be enough talent across the board to get the job done. The team is eighth in the League in goals per game (3.09) and 11 forwards have at least 1 goal.

The power play (9-for-53) has been a concern, particularly for a team that hasn't finished lower than sixth with the man advantage the past three seasons, but there have been signs of a turnaround. The Flyers are hitting at 35-percent efficiency (6-for-17) with the man advantage in their last three games. Penalty killing has been up to the task all season, ranking seventh in the League with an 87.9-percent efficiency (allowing 7 goals on 58 times shorthanded). Philadelphia hasn't allowed a power-play goal in two straight games (12-for-12).

Despite his high threshold for pain, not until his ninth game of the season did defenseman Chris Pronger appear to be his usual aggressive self. He missed the first two games of the season after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his right knee in August, but he's already back to logging 21:58 of ice time per game. That's down from the 25:55 (fifth in the NHL) he averaged last season, but for the Flyers' long-term success, fewer minutes now probably is a good thing.

Defenseman Kimmo Timonen, another workhorse on the Flyers' blue line, has been hampered by a sore ankle during the past week. Maybe that explains why a Flyers defense, which combined for 32 goals and 137 points (1.67 points per game) last season, just now is beginning to find its groove.

Timonen scored the first goal of the season by a Flyers defenseman in a 6-1 victory against the Islanders on Saturday, and then Pronger followed with his first two goals of the season. After hitting for the 14th two-goal game of his career, Pronger dished on the status of his knee.

"It's been OK," he said. "It's hit-or-miss, obviously. Some days you feel better than others depending on the game and the ice conditions and the amount of time on ice. There's a lot of things that kind of go into it but we're trying to manage it and hopefully get it better with each week, month."

Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale

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