It's becoming somewhat clear -- and that's saying a lot in this always opaque saga -- that Mats Sundin's reported decision day is going to be pushed back yet again.
We here at SI.com, like the rest of the hockey, awake every day to breathlessly await word of where the now-accidental hockey player will bestow his services for the remainder of the season. With the big moment reportedly anywhere from tomorrow to beyond Christmas, possibly the new year and maybe until fellow Swede Peter Forsberg finally finds his miracle foot cure -- we shine our spotlight elsewhere, specifically on one of the teams Sundin has rejected: the Philadelphia Flyers.
In case you hasn't noticed, the Flyers are playing far better hockey these days, something on a par with the Sundin Lotto finalists New York Rangers and better than the Vancouver Canucks, Sundin's other serious suitors. One might also argue that the Flyers' season-long projections, even without Sundin, may well prove to be better than both.
Consider: Since freeing themselves from an inexplicable six-game winless streak to start the season, the Flyers have moved into sixth place overall in the NHL standings (through Dec. 17) at 17-7-6. Their 40 points are just six behind the third-place Rangers and one ahead of the ninth-place Canucks. In conference play, the Flyers have essentially eliminated their early-season gap and stand fourth, a point behind third-place Washington (which benefits from playing in the still-lackluster Southeast Division) and six behind the Boston Bruins and aforementioned Rangers.
As coach John Stevens sees it, the Flyers were never that far off their game, but have refined it to a point where they are playing "aggressive defense first and capitalizing on the offense that comes from good defensive play." That was in evidence on Tuesday when the Flyers beat the Colorado Avalanche, 5-2. The Avs were one of the teams that feasted on the Flyers during that opening winless streak, a fact that wasn't lost on Flyer forward Mike Richards.
"We've come a long way since then," Richards, who is currently tied with Simon Gagne for the team lead in points (37), told a media scrum prior to that win. "We weren't playing poorly before, but now it seems that the small things come naturally to us. We're playing well. If anything, [the Avs] helped us to see a lot of things about our game, so maybe we ought to thank them."
Do you hear the impact of the maturing process in that statement?
If the Flyers were anything through much of last season, they were a bunch of individuals intent on making individual statements designed to justify huge salaries paid out in the previous offseason, impress a coach who really didn't know all that much about them, or just make a team that seemed open to any reckless young prospect willing to buy into the management-sponsored statement that the Flyers would be very much like the old Broad Street Bullies.
Cooler heads plus warnings and massive suspensions from the league office in New York helped tone that down a bit, but more importantly, the Flyers -- despite some serious injuries -- showed signs of growth near the end of last season and especially in the playoffs. They stumbled out of the gate at the start of this season, but the problems were short-lived. Their play wasn't nearly as bad as their record (they did get at least one point in three of those six games) and the sense of team that was on display during the postseason has taken hold once again.
There are still holes in Philly's game and, as always, injuries. But the Flyers appear to have found the formula for overcoming problems: they cover their shortcomings, play more for each other than themselves, and are confident. At 13-1-3 in their last 17 games, their win at Colorado was their fifth straight, and they could match their season-high six with a victory in Montreal. Their defense, once the weakest part of the overall package, has become more adept at moving the puck out of their own end -- especially since obtaining Matt Carle from Tampa in early November. Improved mobility has taken a great deal of pressure off goalies Martin Biron and Antero Niittymaki.
The backline also found some consistency, running seven men deep with the odd man out finding himself out for increasing periods of time. The unit could soon go eight deep. Randy Jones, sidelined by a hip injury that dates back to Game Five of the semifinal playoff round against Pittsburgh, has resumed skating with the Phantoms in the AHL. While no return date is set, a healthy Jones would give the Flyers enough talent and depth on the blueline to perhaps look for a move of their own should the Rangers obtain Sundin.
Injuries up front seem to be working as a positive as well. The Flyers are content to stay the course and wait on the return of forward Daniel Briere (groin strain; out until well into January), but that's been made easy by the fact that his long-term absence has created more ice time for Jeff Carter, who has responded with 21 goals, four of them game-winners. Carter, Richards and Gagne's offensive contributions have helped make up for the lost early-season points. Teamed with Scott Harnell, Carter has created a second scoring line, taking pressure off Richards and Gagne.
The Flyers are not a scoring machine, but they are effective, especially with the man advantage. They are building on a power play that scored four goals on six chances in a 6-3 win over rival Pittsburgh last Saturday. Since Gagne rejoined the lineup after a series of long-term injuries, the power play (27 percent) has risen to challenge Detroit's (28) as the best in the league. And the penalty-killing unit is not only efficient, it leads the league in short-handed goals, with 11.
"I think we're playing our best hockey right now," Gagne said.
That's a statement that few in the Eastern Conference, including Sundin, can dispute.