Captain Chris Pronger has missed 15 games and will be evaluated by two concussion specialists Wednesday. Danny Briere, the Flyers' leading goal scorer last season, is still searching for chemistry with his new linemates. Ilya Bryzgalov, the goalie with $51 million worth of expectations, has been alarmingly inconsistent.

Yet the Flyers, despite injury problems, despite playing with as many as seven rookies in their lineup, have climbed among the NHL elite.

Which raises the question: What happens when (if?) Pronger returns, Briere gets in sync, and Bryzgalov plays like the Flyers expected?

Is this the year the Stanley Cup drought - most of the Flyers weren't close to being born when the franchise last won the title in 1975 - finally ends?

Well, it's all about timing, about being healthy and hot - and having favorable matchups when the playoffs roll around.

For the Flyers, there is a lot of uncertainty because of Pronger's situation. If he returns at full strength in, say, a month or two, the Flyers figure to make a strong run. If it's determined he won't return, general manager Paul Holmgren may have to add a veteran defenseman.

But even with Pronger's latest medical news, there are positive signs in Flyerdom, including the character the team showed in its gritty 3-2 win over Pittsburgh on Thursday.

The Flyers were coming off a draining 5-4 overtime win in Buffalo the previous night, a game in which they expended lots of energy to overcome a 3-0 deficit.

The Penguins were off the previous night. They were rested and waiting.

But it was the Flyers who had the early jump, bolted to a 3-0 lead, and then held off the Penguins. The Flyers looked exhausted in the third period, but they got solid goaltending from Bryzgalov and they endured.

On and off the ice, this team is closer than last year's. You can feel the camaraderie when you enter the locker room. You can even feel it in the players' good-natured tweets on Twitter, many of which are generated by winger Scott Hartnell.

Hartnell is one of the many reasons the Flyers have withstood the loss of Pronger. Without their defensive leader, the Flyers have had to win a lot of high-scoring games - and they have done just that.

In his last nine games before facing Tampa Bay on Saturday night, Hartnell had seven goals. He had also scored in four straight games.

Being reinserted onto the power play, Hartnell said, has keyed his resurgence. Ditto being put on a line with Claude Giroux - if the season ended today, he would be the league's MVP - and ageless Jaromir Jagr.

"You're not going to get many points if you're not on the power play," Hartnell said. "Being right in front of the net where all the action happens, I've been able to get some shots, and you'll get some breaks and things like that. And obviously playing with Giroux, who's been having a great year, leading scorer in the league. And obviously Jagr, he seems like he hasn't lost a step since the early '90s.

"So, it's a lot of fun. It's awesome coming to work every day knowing you're playing with those guys, and I don't take it for granted. I'm just trying to work hard every day in practice."

Besides creating havoc in front for opposing goaltenders, the carefree Hartnell has become one of the team's leaders. He keeps things loose in the locker room and doesn't take himself seriously.

Witness how he pokes fun at himself for his frequent, um, falls on the ice.

On Twitter, #hartnelldown has become a popular hashtag. Some Flyers even use it in tweets, including Hartnell.

After he fell down while scoring in Thursday's win over the Penguins, Hartnell did a TV interview and told Steve Coates he "finished with a hartnelldown there at the end."

Hartnell said he finds out on Twitter how many times he has fallen down in a game.

"It's hilarious," he said.

Flyers winger James van Riemsdyk tweeted after Thursday's game: "Another epic #HartnellDown in warmups. Does that count toward the total? #doublerunners"

Hartnell's pratfalls - he supposedly has fallen about 120 times this season - are amusing as long as he continues to produce. He is in one of the best goal-scoring streaks of his career, prompting this hashtag: #HartnellUp.

Contact staff writer Sam Carchidi at scarchidi@phillynews.com or @BroadStBull on Twitter.