STANDING IN the depths of the Wells Fargo Center last Tuesday night - after the jokes and the smiles of a skills competition for their loyal followers, but before the presents, the food and the joys of the holidays - there was a palpable businesslike feel in the Flyers' locker room.
Too far gone was the Flyers' sorry, 5-0 drubbing by the Florida Panthers the night before.
Their longest road trip of the season was still more than 5 days away from takeoff - and they were exactly a week away from facing off against one of the NHL's best in the Vancouver Canucks - but it was already in their minds.
"It will tell us a lot about the character of our team," James van Riemsdyk said. "It's a long flight to get out there and it's a lot of games to be played in a short period of time. It's going to be a challenge for us, there's some good teams out there."
Through nearly the first half of the season, the Flyers have run the gauntlet of the Eastern Conference and came out with little more than a few scratches and a shiner. This month alone they've rattled off wins over Boston, Pittsburgh, Montreal and the Rangers, in succession.
The Flyers are a sparkling 20-6-2 against the East and have a winning record against every division: 9-1-1 against the Atlantic, 7-2-0 vs. the Northeast and 4-3-1 against the Southeast.
Their record against the much tighter Western Conference? Just 2-2-3. And they haven't exactly played against the West's honor role: Minnesota, Calgary, Columbus, St. Louis, Colorado, San Jose and Anaheim. Only two of those teams entered last night's action in the West's jumbled playoff picture.
"We've done pretty well against teams in the East," said Sean O'Donnell, who has spent most of his 16-year career in the West. "I feel like we've had some tough games, but I haven't felt like in any game we've been overwhelmed. We go into every game feeling like we don't need any breaks. We can't really say the same about the West, yet. The West will be the real test."
The Flyers landed in Vancouver yesterday afternoon and practiced to prep for the test. This week they will face the Canucks, Los Angeles, Anaheim and Detroit. Their combined record is 79-45-14. Three of those teams are firmly in the playoff picture and the Ducks began yesterday tied for the eighth and final spot.
The Flyers are 10-0-4 in Vancouver since 1989 but have not won in Detroit since Nov. 4, 1988, going 0-13-2 in Joe Louis Arena since then.
"It's a big stretch," coach Peter Laviolette said. "There's this swing and then all of the road games coming up here, nine of the next 10 [games on the road]. At times, road trips can be a good thing. You have to win the games, but it's a chance for your team to get out together. You can do some things on the road that you don't get to do at home. There are always personal obligations at home with family, kids, and other things you attend to.
"I think as hard as road trips can be sometimes, they can be really good for your team. You can really solidify your team as a group."
So far, this Flyers team really hasn't had that chance. Twenty of their 35 games have been at home, where they have a 12-6-2 record and 14 sellouts. The farthest they have had to travel is St. Paul, Minn., and their longest trip has been just four nights.
By the time the Flyers return from this trip late Sunday night, they will have traveled 7,130 miles, equaling their travel total so far this season.
Last year, van Riemsdyk went to the West Coast with the Flyers in November and saw the Pacific Ocean for the first time in his 21 years. The rest of the trip was a blur, as the Flyers started a losing streak that ultimately cost coach John Stevens his job.
"That's when we kind of didn't do our best," van Riemsdyk recalled. "I'm pretty sure I don't quite remember last year."
Coincidentally, the Flyers will face Stevens, an assistant coach under former Flyers head coach Terry Murray, in Los Angeles on Thursday night.
For most of the Flyers, last year's collapse and subsequent resuscitation by Laviolette remain fresh in their minds. Many players have said their near-death flirtation with the playoffs last April has challenged them to avoid the pitfalls of a long season, ones like last Monday's clunker against Florida.
Even so, the Flyers entered their unusual 8-day holiday break in the best possible position: first overall in the league.
"If you evaluate everything as a whole," Laviolette said, "there are a lot of positives. Nights like last [Monday] are tough to take. They are tough to swallow. At this point, the guys have done a lot of good things and that shouldn't be forgotten, either. As a whole body of work, it's been good."
This week, the Flyers will be challenged in a way they haven't yet been this season. They have already proved themselves the class of the East, but that's only half the league. And they haven't yet played half the season.
"We've put ourselves in a pretty good position," van Riemsdyk said. "Obviously, it's a better path to get there if you're doing well now and good things are happening. It doesn't really matter if we don't keep playing well. We don't play to be in first place now, we play to be in first at the end of the year."
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