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Inside the Flyers: Team has chops for another Cup run

Grading the Flyers' performance for the 2010 calendar year is similar to a review for the recently released movie The Fighter.

The Flyers are currently fourth in the Eastern Conference and second in their division. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)
The Flyers are currently fourth in the Eastern Conference and second in their division. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)Read more

Grading the Flyers' performance for the 2010 calendar year is similar to a review for the recently released movie The Fighter.

There was slight room for improvement, but it deserves 31/2 out of 4 stars.

The Fighter is a notch under Rocky, just like the Flyers were slightly below the Chicago Blackhawks in last season's Stanley Cup Finals.

The Flyers have made major strides from those Finals and are better-equipped to bring home their first Cup since the days of Gerald Ford, the disco rage, and movie classics such as Jaws and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

But we're jumping ahead of ourselves. Let's go back to the beginning of 2010 and get this year-in-review going, chronologically:

With the way the team is playing this season - and with its strong finish in 2009-10 - it's easy to forget the Flyers were struggling mightily a year ago.

When last January started, the Flyers dropped a 2-1, overtime decision to Boston at Fenway Park, followed by a 7-4 defeat in Ottawa that left them with a 19-19-3 record.

But that's when the growing pains, under new coach Peter Laviolette, seemed to end. It took the Flyers 16 games before they adapted to Laviolette's attacking system, and on Jan. 6 they began an 18-7-1 run that had them looking like contenders.

The Olympic break, however, stalled their momentum, and the Flyers had to huff and puff just to make the playoffs, earning a berth with a shoot-out win over the Rangers on the last day of the regular season.

You know the rest. The upset of New Jersey as Brian Boucher outdueled Martin Brodeur in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. The epic comeback from a three-games-to-none series deficit - and a 3-0 deficit in Game 7 - against Boston in the conference semifinals. Michael Leighton's three shutouts in the dismantling of Montreal, giving the Flyers a shot at the Stanley Cup.

In the Finals, Leighton lost his magic. The lanky goalie's subpar series performance - and the two soft goals he allowed in the decisive Game 6 - helped Chicago win its first Cup since 1961.

And it kept the Flyers Cup-less since 1975.

It also left them hungry and more focused this season. That's the biggest change between the Flyers of last season and this year's edition.

Throw away the 5-0 clunker of a defeat to visiting Florida on Monday - hey, they deserve a mulligan because of their overall body of work - and it's difficult to find a game in which the Flyers took a period or two off this season.

Last season, the Flyers sometimes looked like champions in one period and like an also-ran the next period - at least until the playoffs rolled around.

But consistency has been the byword this season. That, and better goaltending, a stronger defense, and solid play from all four lines have the Flyers at 22-8-5 after 35 games. That mark is identical to the 1973-74 team's record at the same juncture. That team finished 50-16-12 and won the franchise's first Cup.

Is this team, which is on pace for the third-most points (115) in club history, as good as the Cup champs of 1974 and 1975?

Probably not - the Bernie Parent factor gives those Flyers teams from yesteryear an advantage - but the gap is much closer than it was at this time last year.

Sergei Bobrovsky's emergence, Andreas Nodl's development, and the additions of Andrej Meszaros and Sean O'Donnell have been the major upgrades, enabling the Flyers to have 17 more points than after 35 games last season.

Claude Giroux's rise to stardom, inspired play by the veterans - including a rejuvenated Boucher - and having had time to digest the nuances of Laviolette's system have also played major roles in the improvement.

Barring injuries and provided Chris Pronger returns to form after recovering from a broken foot, this team has the chemistry and talent to reach the Finals again.

A year ago, the Flyers were regarded as somewhat lucky because they didn't have to face Washington or Pittsburgh in the playoffs.

The way the Flyers are constructed, however, beating the Penguins or Capitals in the playoffs is not as daunting of a task. The Flyers are 3-1 against the Pens and 1-0-1 against the Caps this season, sending a loud message to the rest of the NHL.

In other words, this team could get four stars before it's all over.

Inside the Flyers:

Five Flyers Points to Ponder

1. Trying to fill Pronger's absence

With defensive leader Chris Pronger sidelined for at least four or five more weeks because of a broken foot, the Flyers need their defensemen to compensate for his loss. Besides his shot-blocking and general nastiness, Pronger's point shot on the power play will be missed.

2. What about Bob?

If the Flyers are going to win the Cup, they will probably need rookie goalie Sergei Bobrovsky to regain the form he displayed in his first 14 starts (11-2-1 with a 2.00 goals-against average). He is 4-3-2, with a no-decision, and a 3.13 GAA in his last 10 starts. Moving forward, which Bobrovsky will we see?

3. Dividing 3 goalies into 2 spots

Will the Flyers keep three goalies for the rest of the season as insurance? Or will they deal Michael Leighton or Brian Boucher? If they do, acquiring a draft pick or a minor-leaguer would be advisable because the Flyers are up against the cap.

4. A potential minefield of a schedule

The Flyers play nine of their next 10 games on the road, mostly against quality opponents. They have one of the league's best road records at 10-2-3, so this difficult stretch could establish them as the league's team to beat. Or not.

5. Special teams need improvement

The Flyers' special teams have not been so special. Improvement will be vital if they are going to land one of the East's top seeds. The Flyers' power play (16.7 percent success rate) ranks 21st in the 30-team NHL, and their penalty kill is 11th (83.2 percent). The Flyers have been the NHL's best five-on-five team (a 1.54 goals for/against ratio), masking the special teams' up-and-down production. - Sam Carchidi