Despite plenty of adversity, Philadelphia is flying high

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:13 AM ET

It was a recipe for disaster.

The starting goalie was out. Most of the defence corps was injured. The captain was one of a number of forwards missing from the lineup. And the team was about to embark on an 11-game trip.

But now, eight games into that trip, the Philadelphia Flyers have won seven and lost the other in a shootout.

At the beginning of the season, there were many who were ready to award the Stanley Cup to the Ottawa Senators. And by the time it's over, they may be right.

But at the halfway mark, the Philadelphia Flyers are looking stronger.

While the Senators have gone into a funk after losing only three key forwards -- Jason Spezza, Martin Havlat and Daniel Alfredsson -- the Flyers have overcome a host of injuries to high-level players at all positions.

Even so, they haven't lost a regulation-time game since Dec. 15. Their last regulation-time loss on the road was on Nov. 15.

And much of the time, they've been without any or all of Peter Forsberg, Simon Gagne, Eric Desjardins, Keith Primeau, Robert Esche and Joni Pitkanen.

Said Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock, "I'm sure there are teams that finish playing us that say, 'What the hell? We can beat that team.'

"But we find a way to win. These guys deserve a lot of credit. This is a team built on character right now."

GOING WILD

As the season goes on, the Minnesota Wild will garner increasing attention.

If they start to make a run toward a playoff spot, which is not inconceivable, they'll worry some teams who might have to face them in the post-season. They play a difficult style to counter.

But if the Wild start to slip, they'll attract even more notice. They've got nine potential Group 3 free agents who represent varying degrees of attractiveness to playoff-bound teams.

At the top of the list are the two goaltenders -- Dwayne Roloson and Manny Fernandez. But there also are four useful defencemen -- Filip Kuba, Daniel Tjarnqvist, Andrei Zyuzin and Willie Mitchell.

The three forwards who might be up for grabs are Alexander Daigle, Randy Robitaille and Marc Chouinard.

General manager Doug Risebrough will be entertaining offers, and hasn't yet made up his mind which way he'll go.

"This is definitely an uncomfortable part of the job and something I have to be careful of," he said. "I've got guys here that I've legitimately got to try and re-sign. These guys do provide continuity.

"I have the flexibility to decide who they are, but clearly, some will go."

Three teams in the Wild's division -- the Vancouver Canucks, Edmonton Oilers and Colorado Avalanche -- all are facing uncertainty about their goaltending, and the Wild may have the answer.

Some GMs don't like to trade within their division but Risebrough isn't one of them. "If it's the right thing to do, it is," he said.

NOW IN NET?

Who will be the goaltender for Finland at the Olympics? Miikka Kiprusoff of the Calgary Flames had been the expected choice but he pulled out.

Allegedly, he did so to allow nagging injuries to heal, but since he's leading the league in shutouts, those injuries, whatever they might be, don't seem to be overly debilitating.

Naturally enough, there is a good deal of speculation that Kiprusoff was pressured into his decision by the Flames, who want him well rested for an anticipated run toward the Stanley Cup.

The Olympic job appears to have been handed to Keri Lehtonen. But now, Finnish players are whispering that he too might be pressured by his team -- the Atlanta Thrashers -- to withdraw.

In Lehtonen's case, such a move would be more than reasonable. He has missed half the season with a groin injury.

But at the same time, it would expose Thrashers GM Don Waddell to scrutiny since he is also the GM of the United States Olympic team.

But the expectations now are that the Finns, the most goalie-rich nation on the planet after Canada, will use a guy who wasn't even a starter on his National Hockey League team at the start of the season.

That would be Antero Niittymaki of the Flyers.

DOWN FOR A WHILE

The Oilers have sent goaltender Mike Morrison down to the minors on what ostensibly is a conditioning assignment.

But there are suspicions that it's really a way to give Morrison some work without putting him on waivers. With Ty Conklin having been recalled, and Jussi Markkanen never having been away, it's too crowded at the top.

The Oilers are hoping that one of the three will get hot, but they can't keep them all active at the NHL level. Don't be surprised if the Oilers drag out Morrison's "rehab"stint as long as possible.

HERE AND THERE

You can decide for yourself which coach is at fault. But surely something is wrong when, in Monday's game between the Leafs and the Pittsburgh Penguins, Tie Domi logged more ice time than Sidney Crosby ... For the most part, the officiating crackdown has not wavered. But the one tactic that seems to be making a reappearance with increasing frequency is the take-out interference. Two players are heading for a loose puck when one slams the other into the boards. That's supposed to be interference, but it often gets ignored ... There won't be a lot of broken hearts around the league if Bryan Marchment of the Calgary Flames suffered a serious knee injury on Friday. As he has done so often, he was targeting someone else's knee -- Jason Allison's in this case -- when he himself got hurt ... How did yesterday's all-day gala get to be "CBC's Hockey Day in Canada" as it repeatedly was billed? It's hockey day in Canada all right. But last year, when the NHL was dark, Nancy Lee, the head of CBC Sports, decided to ignore it ... Defenceman Bob Boughner was having trouble cracking the Colorado lineup, but when injuries started to take their toll, he was given a crack as a fourth-line forward. Playing with Dan Hinote and Cody McCormick, Boughner has been relatively effective ... Because of injuries, the Columbus Blue Jackets have used 39 players this season. But these days, it's the bottom line that counts. Replacement players will cost Columbus more than $2 million US ... The Nashville Predators are expecting Scott Walker and Jeremy Stevenson to return to the lineup tonight or Tuesday. As a result, Jordin Tootoo probably will be shipped back to the minors.


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