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Gagne, Carter having special seasons for Flyers

by Chuck Gormley
In their 42-year history, the Philadelphia Flyers never have produced an Art Ross Trophy winner and only once -- when Reggie "The Rifle" Leach victimized goalies 61 times in 1975-76 -- did they produce the NHL's top goal scorer.

With opponents like Buffalo's Thomas Vanek leading the NHL in goals and Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin the overall points leader, that trend may continue, but Simon Gagne and Jeff Carter may be on the verge of rewriting the Flyers' record books in the same season.

Entering play Tuesday, Gagne was tied for sixth in the scoring race with 34 points, 15 behind Penguins sensation Evgeni Malkin's 49, so that's a lot of ground to make up. But Carter was second in goals, trailing Buffalo's Thomas Vanek, 24-21.

At the quarter pole, Gagne was on pace for a career-high 101 points, and Carter was marching toward a 60-goal season, more than double his career-high of 29 goals last season.

While Carter's lethal wrist shot has made him the scourge of NHL netminders, Gagne's ability to put career-threatening concussion issues has fueled his incredible comeback.

When Gagne spent the final two months of last season receiving prolotherapy treatments and massage therapy on his head and neck, it was reasonable to suggest he might walk down the same dizzying path as former teammates Keith Primeau and Eric Lindros.

Primeau was forced to retire prematurely because of post-concussion syndrome, and Lindros was rendered ineffective when numerous concussions led him to abandon his down-low game for one on the perimeter.

Gagne managed to play only 25 games last season, leaving everyone in the Flyer organization wondering how he'd respond to the daily grind of this season.

"You just never know, having that much time off, what level he'd get to and how early," Flyers coach John Stevens said. "But he's doing so many good things right now."

Gagne leads the NHL with four shorthanded goals; is tied for seventh in goals with 15; is 18th in assists with 19; second in plus-minus with a plus-18, and 11th in shooting percentage at 21.1 percent.

"He's a scorer like I've never played with," said Flyers right wing Joffrey Lupul, who played two seasons with Teemu Selanne in Anaheim. "I've played with some good players in my career, but I don't think any of them make their chances count quite like Gaggy."

Gagne's biggest test of the season came after he took a shoulder to the head by Montreal Canadiens forward Alex Kovalev on Nov. 15. The following night, Gagne returned to score a goal and set up two more in a win against the Atlanta Thrashers.

Despite suffering three concussions last season, Gagne has scored many of his goals in dirty areas around the net and is playing with the kind of breakneck speed that had been missing in his game during his two seasons with Peter Forsberg.

"I knew if I was going to score goals again I couldn't just stay above the circles," Gagne said, "I had to take some hits around the net and dig for goals."

"He's smart enough to know he needed to change his game," Stevens said. "Peter could cycle the puck on his own for 15 seconds, and Simon was smart enough to get away from him and wait for the puck. He's got great quickness and he's a fast skater and now he's finding himself with the puck more."

Gagne and Mike Richards have also teamed to become the most dangerous penalty-killing tandem in the League. They've combined for eight shorthanded goals and are a threat to score every time they step on the ice.

"You try to read what the team is going to do before it happens," Gagne said. "I don't want to say cheating, but you want to anticipate what they're going to do. When guys make those blind plays we get our chances to score goals."

Carter's emergence has been less dramatic than Gagne's, but no less impressive. Taken by the Flyers with the 11th pick of the 2003 draft, the 23-year-old center had a breakout season last year with 29 goals and 53 assists, but he is on pace to shatter those numbers this season.

If Carter can keep his early pace, his 60 goals would be the highest goal total in the NHL since Mario Lemieux netted 69 in 1995-96.

"He's a scorer like I've never played with."
-- Joffrey Lupul on Simon Gagne

"His shot is the hardest shot I've ever seen in my life," Flyers backup goaltender Antero Niittymaki said. "The reality is that he can score goals from the blue line. He has a long stick and it's always tougher when you face a big guy with a long stick."

Listed at 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, Carter uses the longest stick on the Flyers. From butt-end to heel, it measures 63 inches. By comparison, 5-foot-10 center Danny Briere uses a 57-inch stick.

"With a longer stick you can reach further back to launch the puck," Briere said. "But you need good hands to be able to play with a long stick like that because the longer the stick, the tougher it is to make plays because the puck is farther from your body."

Of course, there is more to Carter's scoring spree than the length of his stick. He has gained 18 pounds since the Flyers drafted him five years ago and has been used by Stevens in all situations.

Six of Carter's goals this season have come on the power play, two while shorthanded and 13 at even-strength, including one into an empty net.

"The thing that is so exciting for me is that he is doing all this scoring, but not giving up any of his defensive responsibilities," Stevens said. "He is playing against top lines every night. He kills penalties, he plays big minutes and he's still putting up all kinds of numbers.  He is really rounding himself into one of the better two-way players in the League."

Another reason for Carter's scoring prowess is the fact he has never met a shot he didn't like. He entered the weekend with 131 shots, 39 behind the League-leading Alexander Ovechkin.

"I'm just trying to use my speed, drive wide and put everything on net and things are working out," Carter said.

Because of the absence of Briere, Carter's recent success has come with wingers Scott Hartnell and Andreas Nodl riding shotgun.

"First and foremost, it's his talent," Hartnell said of Carter's goal rush. "He has such a quick release, you can't tell if he's going high or low with it. And half his goals are coming off the rush, where he blows by a D-man and goes top shelf. It's hard to find guys like that who are big and strong and fast with a big shot."

Throw in the fact Carter shoots right-handed, and you've got all the makings of a pure goal scorer.

"Because he's right-handed there's more room for him high glove side," said Niittymaki. "When he puts it in that one spot, it's impossible for a goalie to stop."

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