After a two-day Christmas break, the surging Flyers will start their longest road trip of the season tonight, a six-game, 12-day odyssey that will take them to Chicago, Columbus, Vancouver, Anaheim, Los Angeles and Washington.

First place is in sight. The Flyers, 15-2-4 in their last 21 games, are just two points behind the Atlantic Division-leading New York Rangers and have three games in hand.

"We're trying to catch the guys ahead of us, and this road trip is huge for us," said center Glen Metropolit, who is expected to return to the lineup tonight in Chicago after missing three games with a strained back. "It's a good time for team bonding, too. It's the middle of the year, and you get all the guys together and, hopefully, get a string of wins here."

The trip will feature games against former teammates (including Chicago's Patrick Sharp and Columbus' R.J. Umberger) and coaches (Columbus' Ken Hitchcock and Los Angeles' Terry Murray), along with a contest against Anaheim's emerging Bobby Ryan, the pride of Cherry Hill.

After playing Chicago, the Flyers will face Hitchcock's Blue Jackets tomorrow night. Those back-to-back games may be the toughest part of the trip.

"Chicago is a very dangerous team, and Columbus plays hard and is a big team, so it's a big challenge for us and one we'll have to embrace," coach John Stevens said.

The Flyers will fly on a charter flight to Chicago at 8:30 this morning and play the sizzling Blackhawks tonight.

It's highly unusual for a team to take a day-of-game flight, but the Flyers wanted to spend Christmas with their families.

"It's tough. You leave the 26th and play the same night, but they're in the same boat," defenseman Kimmo Timonen said. "It's a big road trip for us, and we have to be ready to go."

During the two-day break, some of the Flyers and Blackhawks were scattered around the country, spending time with their families.

The Flyers usually go on an extended post-Christmas trip because Disney on Ice is at the Wachovia Center.

"This time of year, you want to be home, definitely. You've got all the Christmas decorations and leftover food from the holidays and all that kind of good stuff," said winger Scott Hartnell, a Center City resident. "It's a little tough going away, but you have to deal with it. It's a good time for the guys to get away and get refocused about playing again."

Leaving the day of the game and playing the Blackhawks will "be a tough game, and maybe we won't have as much energy as usual, but it's just a game you have to get through," winger Joffrey Lupul said. "You've got to try to do the little things to win the game because you want to start a long road trip on the right foot.

"This is a trip a lot of guys have been looking forward to," he added. "It's fun sometimes to get out on the road with the guys, especially around this time. . . . It'll be fun to go through California on New Year's Eve."

The Flyers' Center City Line - Hartnell, Lupul and Jeff Carter (league-high 26 goals) - has been on a blistering pace. They have 19 goals and 38 points in their eight games together. Lupul, who had been on the third and fourth lines, has jump-started the line since being promoted.

"I feel I'm playing a little bit better, and both of my linemates have been great," Lupul said. "There's not a lot that hasn't been said about Cartsy. He's doing everything for us right now, from an offensive and defensive standpoint, so to play on his line right now is a lot of fun. He's scoring a lot of goals, and you get to play a lot more when you're playing with him."

Carter's group has supplanted Mike Richards' line as the Flyers' most productive unit.

Carter Country

Flyers center Jeff Carter, who will turn 24 on New Year's Day, has made vast strides since last season. The numbers:

Season   Games   Goals   Assists   Points   Shots

2007-08   34   12   7   19   85

2008-09   34   26   14   40   154

- Sam Carchidi

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Contact staff writer Sam Carchidi at 215-854-5181 or scarchidi@phillynews.com.