Stay hard, stay hungry, stay alive.I thought it summed up what the Flyers had to do without star defenseman Chris Pronger: play tough, keep pace with the other Eastern Conference leaders and, ultimately, survive.
Well, I didn't get around to the post. And in the meantime, Pronger returned from his foot injury on Thursday against Ottawa, only to less fanfare than you'd expect. Why? In his absence, the team went 9-4. Even better, ten of those games were on the road. The Flyers didn't just survive, they flourished.
And that's the beauty of this team. They're deep, probably the deepest in the league and maybe the deepest group of Flyers in recent memory. Not only are there a boatload of talented players, but everyone's being used properly. John Stevens could never figure out how to squeeze four centers into three lines, but Peter Laviolette has proven adept at meshing personalities and talents together. For the most part, Claude Giroux and Jeff Carter have switched off on one line, while Briere hunkers down in the middle on another and Mike Richards babysits some combination of James van Riemsdyk, Andreas Nodl and Darroll Powe. And it's worked.
In particular, the Briere-Scott Hartnell-Ville Leino line (which Stephen Whyno tried so very hard to name via Twitter) remains as good as it looked in last year's playoffs. The mashup of Leino's passing, Hartnell's aggressiveness and Briere's eye for the net has been oddly inspired casting. In particular, Briere's been an absolute revelation. Finally healthy and free from dealing with numerous personal issues, he's living up to his $6.5 million a year and then some. And Giroux's moved into his house! It's one of those odd weird Mario Lemieux/Sidney Crosby-type deals that's always got a weird hint of creepiness to it, but I'll allow it in this case.
Meanwhile, Carter's quietly tallied 20 goals, on pace for another 35-plus season, and Richards leads the team in points, leadership qualities and handsomeness. Matt Carle's gone from being Pronger's disciple to a legitimate top-four defenseman. Kimmo Timonen is as steady as it gets, and Andrej Meszaros leads the league in plus-minus. That's right, the whole NHL. Paul Holmgren got this guy for a second-round pick, only one of the many reasons he was recently extended.
And then there's van Riemsdyk. Surprisingly enough, JVR's on pace for a 20-goal season, and continued good play could get him near 25. He's been the hardest-working player on the ice in more than a few games recently, and keep in mind that the kid's still 21 years old; Giroux's making his All-Star debut at 23. Any talk of trading JVR is absurd; let him marinate with one of the best teams in the NHL, and you'll have a stud on your hands in a few short years.
I had a fear, after last year's Stanley Cup Finals, that this was a "one and done" team. They had their shot at stealing a Cup in a wide-open year, and they blew it. But I was wrong, dammit, and I couldn't be happier about it. It was actually a young team that was gelling, a roster that added a few key veterans like Meszaros and Sean O'Donnell, and an organization that struck gold with young goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky.
Oh, the goalies. As always, everything relies on them. Brian Boucher has been the perfect backup, and Bobrovsky seems to be settling back into a nice little groove. Plus, it doesn't hurt to have maybe the best defense in the league in front of you. But until Bob gets some playoff experience, until he proves that he can handle being a full-time starting NHL goaltender, it's a house of cards. It hasn't toppled yet, and I don't necessarily think it will. But it could make things complicated, and then Holmgren's mettle, Pronger's foot, Richards' leadership and Laviolette's coaching acumen might be truly tested.
Until then, the Flyers have the most points in the NHL. They've got the best goal differential. And their best defenseman, probably a little sleepy pre-injury from playing roughly 120 games total last year, is getting back into the swing of things. Philadelphians are accustomed to worry about their sports teams, but this time maybe it's the rest of the league that should be concerned.