J

.P. BARRY

didn't tell

Paul Holmgren

that his client,

Mats

Sundin, has taken the Flyers off his short list of teams.

But the Flyers are no longer in the hunt for the free agent because they can't afford him.

"I haven't spoken to [Barry] in a few days," the Flyers' general manager said. "But we aren't going to have the cap space anyway."

According to several published reports yesterday, Barry told the Ottawa Sun that the four remaining teams are the New York Rangers, Montreal, Vancouver and Chicago, which, however, has also removed itself from the list.

And whichever team signs Sundin is going to spend more money than the Flyers can make room for, or that Holmgren wants to spend.

"Based on the conversations, we can't afford it," Holmgren said. "Our salary-cap issues and what some of these teams can offer will put us out of the game anyway."

Again, as in the case with Brendan Shanahan, this is more of a good thing than bad. The Flyers are one of the hottest teams in the league and were just four points behind the Rangers for the

Atlantic Division lead with three games in-hand yesterday.

Signing either Sundin or Shanahan isn't worth disrupting that. The Flyers will get Randy Jones back this week and Ryan Parent on Dec. 26. Danny Briere will probably come off the long-term injury list by the middle of January, and if all these players stay healthy, the Flyers are only going to get better.

Ol'-time hockey?

Right after

Scott Hartnell

hit

Rod Brind'Amour

in front of the Flyers' bench Thursday night, the Flyers' forward was immediately surrounded by Carolina players and ended up fighting

Casey Borer

.

Toward the end of the game, Scott Walker ran Andrew Alberts into the boards from behind and ended up fighting Arron Asham.

That's not such a big deal considering that fighting is and always has been a part of hockey, but taken in the context of the heightened awareness about the head shots that both the league and the players want to eliminate, the fights could be seen as a statement:

Show some respect or pay the price.

This is not to say that Hartnell's hit on Brind'Amour was dirty, but the reaction seemed more immediate than normal. It's been the case frequently enough that it is getting talked about across the league.

"I don't know if it's kind of something that's grown from seeing other games and watching the reaction of other players," the Flyers' Mike Knuble said. "People are noticing. If there is a big hit on a top player, you see the reaction. It looks like it could be a trend.''

There was an example last week in Nashville. Vancouver defenseman Rob Davison leveled Nashville forward Scott Nichol with an open-ice hit that usually gets called dirty but almost never gets called as a penalty, and the immediate reaction was a pileup fight in front of the Vancouver bench.

There were a lot of roughing penalties called, but not one on the hit.

That's the kind of hit that has drawn the attention of the league and resulted in talk about restoring the level of self-policing the game used to have in defining when a hit has gone too far but is still within the boundaries of the rules.

"You look at the old vintage games on the hockey channel and if you crossed the line, you knew you crossed the line," Nashville coach Barry Trotz said. "I think the line has moved more and more. There's bigger hits, there's guys wearing all that protective gear and people are coming at each other. I don't think people in junior know where the line is, I don't think people in the AHL know where the line is, and it's starting to get gray in the NHL."

Unlike Knuble, Hartnell sees it as just the way hockey is supposed to be played.

"Someone takes liberties on one of your better players, or a dirty hit on anybody, like Walker on Alberts, you take exception on that, you go after the guy, you get in his face and if you've got to fight, you fight," Hartnell said. "I was prepared. I knew a couple of guys were coming, even Brind'Amour was coming after those first two guys. Stuff like that happens. It's part of the game."

Actually, it's an increasing part of the game and one of the reasons why fighting is reportedly up about 25 percent this season. Maybe the corresponding result will be a drop in dangerous hits. It's worth watching.

Empty seats

Something else worth watching, but not all that surprising considering the economy, is the number of empty seats in the Wachovia Center for almost every game, and the number of tickets available for single games.

There were 2,600 available tickets Wednesday afternoon for the Thursday game against Carolina; the announced

attendance was 19,050.

It sure didn't look that way.

In reality, that was the paid attendance, the number of tickets sold. Maybe it was the weather Thursday night, or maybe it's just that the interest isn't there right now following the Phillies' World Series run and the Eagles' up-and-down campaign, but it has been this way more often than not this season.

Comcast-Spectacor president Peter Luukko said no-shows are up and single-ticket sales are down, but said that of the available tickets per game, they are being sold as game-time walk-ups.

"We're making it known that they are out there and they are getting sold," he said. "The economy is definitely having an impact."

Snap shots

Mike Knuble hit the 200 career goal mark Saturday with the first of his two goals in the 6-3 drubbing of the Penguins . . . This time last year the Flyers were 16-10-4. They are 16-7-6 today, or just about the same in points. They went on a six-game winless streak starting Dec. 13 against Montreal. They host Colorado tomorrow night and are in Montreal on Thursday. *

Send e-mail to morane@phillynews.com