FOR THE PAST MONTH, since it has been close enough to be visible on the itinerary, two teams have had one game circled on their respective calendars.
For the Penguins, who have won 12 in a row and are five victories away from tying the NHL record they set in 1992-93, it is their Winter Classic grudge match with the Washington Capitals on New Year's Day at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field. HBO's cameras have been capturing the Penguins' every move in their locker room for the past few weeks.
Meanwhile, the Flyers, 7-1-3 in their last 11 games, have been fixated on tonight's battle with the Penguins.
"We've had this on the calendar for a while," Jeff Carter said.
Rarely do games in the middle of December have such an impact on the standings, as it is not just the Battle of Pennsylvania tonight at the Wells Fargo Center but also the battle for first overall in not just the Eastern Conference but the entire NHL.
The Flyers, who are a league-best 7-1-1 against division opponents, are looking for their third win of the season against the Penguins.
"Pittsburgh's won 12 games in a row and we want to put a stop to it and reclaim tops in our division," Danny Briere said.
The Flyers' goal tonight is simple: Stop Sidney Crosby, which is something no one has been able to do during the Penguins' tear to the top of the standings. And for the first time in four games, Pittsburgh's top line likely will include double trouble with Evgeni Malkin returning from a knee injury.
Just a few weeks ago, there was chatter around the league about Tampa Bay Lightning star Steven Stamkos' charge for 50 goals in 50 games. After Wayne Gretzky, the last player to accomplish the feat, said that Stamkos could do it, Stamkos went six games without a goal. Now, Crosby is the league's only hope. He has 26 goals in 31 games, on pace for a career-high 70 goals.
While Crosby remains reviled on Broad Street, it seems like Flyers fans at least have respect for a player who already has captained teams to the Stanley Cup and an Olympic gold medal before reaching age 24.
"He's probably not whining as much," said Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger, who won a gold medal with Crosby in Vancouver last February.
But how do the Flyers stop him? Crosby has scored more goals in his career against the Flyers than against any other team. Crosby has 26 goals and 34 assists for 60 points in just 35 career games against them. Just once, earlier this season, have the Flyers held Crosby completely off the scoresheet.
"We've got to try to deny him the puck," Pronger said. "If we've got the puck a lot, he's not going to have it. Good offense is good defense. But if we're playing him tight and playing him physical, you're going to want good backside pressure to not allow him easy access to the zone."
For the first time in four games against the Flyers this season, Crosby will see someone other than Sergei Bobrovsky in net. Brian Boucher, who is 4-0-1 in his last five starts, will make his third straight start.
Some have called tonight's game the NHL's biggest of the regular season so far, if that counts for anything. Pronger will be the first to tell you that Stanley Cups can not be won in December - or even March and April. It was just this time last year that the Flyers began a spiral that sent them to 29th in the NHL. Tonight, they have the opportunity to be No. 1.
"It's mid-December, but you can always challenge yourself," Pronger said. "You always get up for teams at the top of the conference. It will be another chance for us to see where we're at. It's going to be a challenge for us."
Michael Leighton returned to practice for the first time yesterday with the Flyers after four rehab starts with the Phantoms, following October back surgery. Pending clearance from doctors today, he will be added to the 23-man roster before tonight's game.
"It's definitely getting better," Leighton said yesterday. "I think I'm ready. I'm waiting for the doctor to say I'm ready to go and sign the papers. It's something that I've been looking forward to for a while."
To make room on the salary cap for Leighton, the Flyers have moved forward Ian Laperriere - who has not played this season because of postconcussion symptoms - to the long-term injured reserve list. General manager Paul Holmgren said yesterday the Flyers also could move Matt Walker to the injured reserve list after a mysterious injury in the Phantoms' loss in Hartford, Conn., on Sunday - though that would not solve their cap ailment.
Walker, who has not played this season because of an Oct. 20 hip surgery and earns $1.7 million, played in all three games this weekend with the Phantoms on a conditioning assignment but Holmgren reported another hip injury yesterday. Walker played the entire game on Sunday.
"I don't know, I haven't talked to John Paddock yet," Holmgren said about Walker's injury. "We're not sure but it might be his hip again."
Forward Jody Shelley was suspended two games by the NHL yesterday for his hit on Boston's Adam McQuaid on Saturday. "It's always one or two more games than you thought," Shelley said. Shelley will forfeit $11,826 in salary to the NHLPA's emergency assistance fund. Nik Zherdev will be reinserted in the lineup in Shelley's absence . . . Coach Peter Laviolette missed yesterday's practice because of a family funeral . . . Sergei Bobrovsky spent at least 25 extra minutes working with goaltending coach Jeff Reese after practice.
4: Number of career overtime goals for Mike Richards. His OT goal with 3 seconds left in Saturday's win over Boston was his first this season; two others were disallowed.
4-0-1: Brian Boucher's record in his last five starts, where he has compiled a 1.71 goals-against average and a staggering .951 save percentage.
4: Number of consecutive games for the Flyers with at least 20 blocked shots (21 at Boston, 22 at Toronto, 21 vs. San Jose, 23 at NY Islanders). The Flyers are 3-0-1 in that span.
THE WEEK AHEAD:
vs. Pittsburgh, Tonight, 7 o'clock
Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin (knee) returned to practice yesterday in anticipation of playing tonight, as the Penguins search for their 13th straight win. Sidney Crosby has four points in three games against the Flyers this season. Defenseman Jordan Staal has missed the last 18 games with foot and hand injuries. Winger Chris Kunitz could also be out of the lineup, as he missed yesterday's practice.
at Montreal, Tomorrow, 7 o'clock
For the second time in less than a month, the Flyers will visit the Bell Centre on the second night of back-to-back games. The Flyers are 4-2-1 in the second game this season. Montreal, which topped the Flyers 3-0 on Nov. 16, still leads the Northeast Division thanks to being second in the NHL in goals against. Montreal also has the league's top penalty kill. Tomas Plekanec leads the Habs with 26 points. Carey Price has started 27 of Montreal's 30 games.
vs. NY Rangers, Saturday, 7 o'clock.
Jody Shelley will be eligible to return from his two-game suspension in time for the game against his former team. Shelley fought to a draw with Rangers bruiser Derek Boogaard when the Flyers rolled to a 4-1 win on Nov. 4. Even at 18-13-1, the Rangers have had a tough time keeping up with the Flyers in the Atlantic Division. The Broadway Blueshirts blew out struggling Washington on Sunday night, 7-0.