FOR NOW, Chicago holds the top spot in the NHL's pantheon of elite. Just ask the Flyers - they found out 2 weeks ago.
But what the Flyers' chief rival is doing across the commonwealth in Pittsburgh is almost more impressive.
Before the calendar flips to 2014, 1 week from Wednesday, the Penguins could have wrapped up their second straight division title. Think about that for a second.
The Penguins are on pace for 119 points this season. The Metropolitan Division has already slipped away from the Flyers, Devils and Hurricanes, who are on pace for 82 points. The second-place Capitals, the only other team in the division with a winning record, are humming along at a 96-point stride.
That means, in order for the Flyers (or Devils or Hurricanes) to finish with 120 points and top the Penguins' pace, they'd have to win all 46 of their remaining games (46-0-0).
Even for the Capitals, who have been hot and cold, they would need 78 points in 46 games, meaning they'd be looking at a 35-5-8 record (or something similar) to top Pittsburgh.
We know teams experience lulls during an 82-game season - particularly one with a 3-week Olympic break and star players contributing for their countries - but shouldn't the Penguins be going through one now? Matt Niskanen was the only Penguins defenseman in the lineup the other night to log more than 62 career games.
Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Kris Letang, Brooks Orpik, and Paul Martin have all missed time, yet they've won 12 of their last 13 games.
They've done this all with 29 different skaters and no reliable backup goaltender. Marc-Andre Fleury, written off after last year's playoff collapse, has made 31 starts in 38 games.
Pittsburgh's run does say a lot about the Metro Division and the Eastern Conference. It says more about their drafting and player development. Their cupboard barely took a hit when trading for Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow and Douglas Murray to make a run last season.
You can make all the jokes you want about the Penguins' playoff failures over the last three springs, but at least there isn't a question as to whether they'll be in or not.
For the second time last week, the Flyers' brain trust and medical staff came under fire from media because of the decision to have Vinny Lecavalier return to the lineup in Columbus.
On Dec. 8, Paul Holmgren announced Lecavalier would miss 3 to 4 weeks with a nondisplaced fracture in his back. He returned 13 days later. All along, Holmgren said doctors believed Lecavalier could not injure the small fracture further by playing.
So, why the criticism? It was unnecessary. The gripe was Lecavalier, 33, was rushed back because Steve Downie will miss the next week with an upper-body ailment.
Yes, the Flyers have a history of beating injury timetables, sometimes curiously. But the concern with Lecavalier was always going to be the back spasms caused by the fracture. Those spasms could have just as easily reared their head on Dec. 30 or Dec. 31 if Lecavalier waited the full time to return - and they still could.
If one of your most consistent scorers swears he can play, and doctors concur, then why not? The Flyers lost, but Lecavalier added an assist on Saturday and actually exceeded (16:36) his season average (16:31) in ice time.
The real concern this week was rightly centered around why Brayden Schenn didn't undergo a concussion test after his head-first charge from Washington's Tom Wilson. Schenn was drilled into the boards with the crown of his helmet and doesn't remember anything after the impact, including falling two or three times trying to skate away.
That's scary. Turns out, Schenn appears to be fine. We appreciate that Schenn knows his body better than anyone else and he knows concussions - he's missed a month at a time before - but he isn't a doctor. Concussion tests should be mandatory for any headfirst hit, particularly with memory loss. No excuse for that in 2013.
File it away
The New York Post reported yesterday that the Flyers and Islanders have been "taking serious runs" at acquiring Max Pacioretty from the Canadiens. Doesn't seem to make much sense, since Pacioretty, 25, leads the Habs in scoring and is signed to a cap-friendly deal through 2018-19.
Pacioretty has 123 points in his last 152 games, giving him 0.81 points-per-game - 39th out of 780-plus players in the NHL over that span.
For what it's worth, the Post also said Pacioretty was available because he doesn't fit coach Jacques Martin's "ideal," yet Martin is a Penguins assistant coach this season. They also incorrectly named Canadiens GM Marc Bergeron, when it's Bergevin. The column was later corrected without mentioning the mistakes.
Either way, leave it to the Flyers to be interested in, well, anyone.
Did you know?
Kings goaltender Martin Jones could break former Flyer Bob Froese's modern-day NHL record for most wins to begin a career. Jones, 23, picked up his eighth win (8-0-0) on Saturday night. He has a ridiculous 0.98 goals against-average and .966 save percentage to go along with three shutouts, keeping the league's save percentage leader (teammate Ben Scrivens, .941) on the bench.
Froese, then 24, began his NHL career with a 9-0-1 mark for the Flyers from Jan. 8 to Feb. 2, 1983. He finished the year with a 17-4-2 record.
2: Weeks Erik Gustafsson will miss with a sprained left knee. That means the Flyers could need both Hal Gill and Andrej Meszaros tonight if Nick Grossmann is still sick with the flu.
7: Game point streak active for Jake Voracek, a career high. He has six goals and five assists for 11 points during this run. Claude Giroux can extend his point streak to a career-high seven games tonight against Minnesota. Giroux has four goals and seven assists in his last six games.
2,963: Days since the Flyers won nine consecutive games at home (Oct. 7 - Nov. 12, 2005), something they can repeat tonight if they top the Wild. They finished with a 23-13-5 record at home that season.
THE WEEK AHEAD
The Flyers will try to avenge a 2-0 loss to the Wild earlier this month. This time, their road may be a bit easier. Minnesota is coming off a game last night at Madison Square Garden, plus they'll be without their top goaltender, Josh Harding. The NHL's goals against-average leader (1.51) is sitting out for a week while adjusting to a new medication to treat his multiple sclerosis. That means either Niklas Backstrom will play twice in 24 hours with his 3.12 GAA and .896 save percentage or Johan Gustafsson, 21, will make his NHL debut against the Flyers.
Tuesday - Thursday
Unlike the NBA, the NHL mandates that all locker rooms be closed from Dec. 24-26 for a holiday break. That means no games, no practices and no meetings until Friday. The league-wide holiday roster freeze — preventing trades and demotions — which has been in place since Dec. 19, will also expire on Friday.
Saturday, 8 o'clock
The Flyers could see a familiar face in Ilya Bryzgalov as they open their annual, postholiday road trip. In a year when the Oilers were finally supposed to make a run toward the playoffs, Edmonton is giving Buffalo a run for the number of pingpong balls in the draft lottery. Amazingly, the Oilers have four players with 27 or more points this season (Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, David Perron and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins), compared to the Flyers' one (Claude Giroux). Bryzgalov has a 2.94 GAA and .917 save percentage in six starts since signing in Edmonton on Nov. 8.