Flyers change course in time, and Penguins aren't surprised

When the Penguins last spent a little quality time with Philadelphia, the Flyers had just finished dousing themselves with flammable liquids and appeared to be searching frantically for a match.

Or, perhaps, a blowtorch.

It was Nov. 13, and the Flyers staggered into Consol Energy Center with a 6-10-1 record, which probably didn't reflect just how badly their season was going.

They had started 1-7 -- the only victory coming in Game No. 4, after Craig Berube had replaced Peter Laviolette as coach -- and they had far more problems than points as the sixth week of the regular season was winding down.

They were mediocre on the road (3-3-1) and downright wretched at home (3-7). Their power play was the fifth worst in the league, and they were generating an average of 1.8 goals per game.

Their captain and most gifted forward, Claude Giroux, had scored once in 17 games, as had right winger Wayne Simmonds. Left winger Scott Hartnell, with two goals, was productive only when compared to them.

"They were struggling pretty good," Penguins defenseman Rob Scuderi said Thursday.

Turned out, though, that the Flyers, who will face the Penguins in a home-and-home series this weekend, had begun to regain their equilibrium even before they got to town. They were coming off victories against Edmonton and Ottawa, and kept the surge going with a 2-1 victory against the Penguins.

Before that game, several Penguins players said they did not expect the Flyers to struggle indefinitely and predicted they would climb back into playoff contention before the season ended.

Which they have.

Philadelphia is 33-25-7 and has a grip, however tenuous, on one of the two wild-card playoff berths in the Eastern Conference.

The Flyers also have a very real chance of overtaking everyone in the Metropolitan Division except the Penguins.

"When we played against them, I didn't see a defeated team or a team that wasn't trying or had given up, so I'm not surprised," Penguins center Sidney Crosby said. "At that point, there was a lot of season left."

The Flyers, it turned out, had bottomed out at 4-10-1; they are 29-15-6 since.

Not coincidentally, their high-profile talents are putting up points at a more typical rate than they did last autumn.

Giroux has 65 points in 65 games. Simmonds' next goal will be his 20th. Hartnell has 15, and 25 assists to go with them.

Vincent Lecavalier, who signed with the Flyers after being bought out by Tampa Bay last summer, has only 26 points in 52 games.

But Jakub Voracek, who thrives against the Penguins, has 18 goals and 30 assists.

"Giroux is probably their best player, and he was coming off wrist surgery, and Lecavalier was a new guy, trying to fit in and find his way there," Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik said.

"If you look at their personnel and some of the experience they have, I'm not all that surprised [by Philadelphia's resurgence]."

The confidence spawned by the turnaround appears to have become self-perpetuating.

The Flyers have lost more than two games in a row in regulation just once since regaining that equilibrium and have won a franchise-record 11 games when trailing in the third period.

"The second half of their season, to this point, is much different than the first 15 games for them," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said.

"They're fighting for a playoff spot, and we're expecting this to be a real good test for six periods."

Coincidentally, if the standings going into Thursday night were to hold through the end of the regular season, the Penguins and Flyers would meet in the opening round.

That matchup is hardly a lock -- while the Penguins aren't likely to slip below second place in the East, the Flyers realistically could turn up anywhere from third to 11th in the conference -- but the possibility of colliding with the Flyers in a best-of-seven sometime this spring should give the Penguins a little extra incentive to elevate their play this weekend.

"I think it will be mentioned," Orpik said. "It was definitely mentioned when we played Washington the past couple of games, because they were sitting one point out of eighth.

"Even if it isn't said, I think everyone's aware of where they are in the standings and what the possible matchups are. I don't even know if you have to say anything, really."

Dave Molinari: and Twitter @MolinariPG.

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