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Del Zotto one of few Flyers making an impact

Suddenly, defenseman Michael Del Zotto is getting plenty of ice time, and thriving, unlike his teammates.

UNIONDALE, N.Y. - Trivia question: Which Flyers defenseman has skated 4 minutes and 10 seconds more than any other player on the team over the last three games?

Hint: He did not play for the Islanders at any point in his career. (That covers Mark Streit and Andrew MacDonald.)

Hint No. 2: He does not have a brother on the team. (Hello, Luke Schenn.)

Hint No. 3: He is not the Minnesota Wild's all-time leader in games played. (Goodbye, Nick Schultz.)

The answer is Michael Del Zotto, who has improbably become the Flyers' hottest commodity over the last 3 weeks after sitting out as a healthy scratch 11 times in a 13-game span in December. He played 46:49 on the team's two-game road trip.

More than being the only Flyers defenseman you could watch on Long Island yesterday without covering your eyes, Del Zotto was maybe the team's all-around best player. That isn't because he collected his third goal of the season in the second period.

No, Del Zotto was one of the few Flyers to push the pace away from Rob Zepp and Ray Emery, actively involved in the play and creating scoring chances.

There were multiple occasions when Del Zotto moved the puck to a winger on the boards and then used his speed to actually beat the other winger or center out of the zone for an outlet pass on the rush.

"He's done a real good job," coach Craig Berube said. "He's very assertive and aggressive. He's checking hard, he's physical. He's moving the puck and he's jumping up in the play."

In fact, when it sunk in that the game was getting away from the Flyers in the third period, Del Zotto seemed to be at his best when the play turned more physical.

"He's certainly gotten involved," Berube said. "The physicality picked up and I thought everybody picked it up when things started getting physical."

His recent hot stretch has many wondering: What exactly will the Flyers do with Del Zotto before the looming March 3 trade deadline?

On one hand, Del Zotto brings a puck-moving side of the game that cannot be taught. He is 24, coming off a season that unraveled his career in New York and Nashville, and could be a valuable part of the Flyers moving forward.

On the other hand, Del Zotto is not the risk-averse blue-liner Berube craves, he is prone to defense lapses and crushing turnovers, and he is skating on a 1-year contract that many teams would find attractive as a low-risk, high-reward rental and extra body for a deep playoff run.

Del Zotto is earning $1.3 million this season. He was let go by Nashville last summer when due a $2.9 million qualifying offer and went unsigned on the open market from July 1 through Aug. 2. He became eligible to sign an extension with the Flyers on Jan. 1.

The tough part for general manager Ron Hextall will be deciding how many defensemen to carry into next season. He already has Nick Grossmann, Braydon Coburn, Streit, MacDonald and Schenn under contract for next season. Hextall also would like to re-sign Schultz, who has been a godsend in a lost season.

But with prospects Samuel Morin, Shayne Gostisbehere and even Travis Sanheim capable of making a run at a full-time role with the Flyers next training camp, keeping both Del Zotto and Schultz would not leave any room for the kids.

The lingering question is whether Del Zotto is more like the confident player we've seen in the past 2 weeks, the shaky blue-liner we witnessed in December, or somewhere in between? The sample size is small, but he looks now like he did during his rookie season with the Rangers. He views life much more simply than that.

"I got back in the lineup and for me, it was just about earning back the coaches' trust and playing solid in my own end and being reliable," Del Zotto said yesterday. "When chances are there offensively, you take advantage of it. You can't push too much."

Yesterday afternoon, Del Zotto zipped into the Islanders' zone and followed a seemingly broken play to the net for a goal. It was the type of play that left you wondering what would have happened if New York's Calvin de Haan had properly cleared the puck. Would Del Zotto have cost the Flyers another goal?

Perhaps, Del Zotto has been able to play more like his usual self - pinching, taking chances, making something out of nothing - because he doesn't have much to lose. When he scored, the Flyers were already trailing 4-1. What's the harm?

The Flyers are buried in the standings now and some would say they are showcasing him for potential suitors. All things being equal, Del Zotto said yesterday he'd like to remain with the Flyers, regardless of the increased attention.

"I've enjoyed my time here," Del Zotto said. "I love it here. I want to stay here. That's not the way I'm looking at it. I want to go out every night and work my hardest for my teammates and my coaching staff to help the team win. That's the only way I'm looking at it."