When the Pittsburgh Penguins last visited the Flyers, on Nov. 10, they suffered a 5-2 defeat. They were a struggling club at the bottom of the Atlantic Division with 15 points.
Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby had an interesting night jawing with Mike Richards and left town with a bruised wrist courtesy of Jason Smith's stick.
Things have changed. The bunched-up division has seen the Penguins bounce back. They have 32 points and are tied with the Flyers for third place, while Crosby has nearly doubled his scoring output, from 21 points to 40.
The Penguins' defense is better, their goaltending has improved, and they arrive tonight at the Wachovia Center having just swept a three-game set in Western Canada.
"They seem to be flying and finding ways to win games," Flyers center Danny Briere said. "Sometimes there's not much between a loss and win - all the games are so tight. Sometimes you need a few breaks, and they seem to be getting them lately. It's going to be a tough game."
The Penguins are trying to win four straight on the road for only the second time in franchise history. They are a club with high expectations.
"I was surprised at how they came in at the beginning of the season," winger Joffrey Lupul said. "On paper, they are the most talented team. They had some problems at the start, and it seems to have been rectified because they've climbed back into it. They're a dangerous team to play against."
The 20-year-old Crosby has always carried swagger in his play. He said after the last meeting that it was obvious the Flyers had not forgotten how his Penguins had beaten up on them, winning all eight games last season. The rivalry now has an edge to it, Crosby said.
Richards' line will draw shifts against him.
"On the road, he plays so much, you are going to have to use more than one line against him," Flyers coach John Stevens said. "Across the board, we have to have a real sense of urgency in our game. He is a terrific positional player. I can't remember such a young player doing so many thing so well. When the puck turns over, he is as good as anyone turning it into offense."
Crosby has five points on the trip but is still looking for his first goal of the season against the Flyers after two games. Flyers goalie Martin Biron expects him to show up with an attitude.
"You think of all the great [smaller] players, premium goal scorers: they get roughed up; they lose their helmet; they get back in front of the net; they have that look in their eye," Biron said. He added that those who thought they could muscle Crosby out were wrong.
"You give him a shot in front of the net, he will give you a shot back, maybe not right then, but he puts it in the back of his head," Biron said. "I'm not saying he will look for an open-ice hit and decapitate you, but he will still be involved."
The Flyers expect an emotionally charged game because this has become such a heated rivalry. It is a four-point game within the division. Entering last night's action, only five points separated the New Jersey Devils at the top from the New York Islanders at the bottom.
"The first 10 games of the year are a lot different than mid-December," Flyers winger Mike Knuble said. The Penguins "have found their way a bit more. We're in mid-December, and already the division games are extremely meaningful.
"As players, you like that - when every game means something like that. The one night you don't play, you can drop three or four spots in the standings," Knuble said.
Younger Timonen dealt.
The Flyers traded Kimmo Timonen's younger brother, Jussi, to Dallas for a conditional draft pick in 2009.
"With the Phantoms having two defensemen coming back from injury, we will have a logjam on defense," general manager Paul Holmgren said. "This will give Jussi an opportunity to play. He is a good kid, and we wish him all the best."
Forward Simon Gagne (concussion) had a no-contact practice with the team for the second straight day. There remained no timetable for his return, but it could be after Christmas. He said he would "love to play" against the Penguins, "but that is not case. I am still not sure when I will come back." Gagne said he was not yet symptom-free. . . . Forward Ryan Potulny is back. He went to Montreal to have a special skate boot prepared to stabilize his sore right ankle. John Stevens said Potulny would play, most likely on a line with Ben Eager and Sami Kapanen. . . . Pittsburgh is 7-2-1 in its last 10 games.