Flyers looking to snap out of another early-season funk

ATLANTA -- We're not suggesting that the Philadelphia Flyers have a personality disorder, but the Flyers are nothing if not, well, mercurial.

After upsetting Washington and Montreal to advance to the Eastern Conference finals this past spring, the Flyers entered this season as a team expected to challenge for the Atlantic Division crown and perhaps the Eastern Conference title.

As veteran forward Mike Knuble noted, the bar was raised significantly, and the Flyers embraced the challenge of being a Cup contender.

But instead of charging out of the gate and recapturing that playoff mindset, the Flyers marred the start of their regular season with six straight losses. Three were in overtime or a shootout, but the tepid performances seemed to suggest the spring was more fluke than foundation. Moreover, giving up 29 goals during those six losses was a painful reminder of the start of the 2006-07 campaign, when Philadelphia went 1-6-1 and gave up 33 goals to start the season and coach Ken Hitchcock and GM Bob Clarke were fired as a result. The Flyers then went on to post the worst record in franchise history and finish dead last in the NHL.

This rags to riches to early-season rags story line had many in Philadelphia chewing nervously on their fingernails -- those who weren't shivering under their umbrellas awaiting the World Series to continue, of course.

"I think for the first three or four games, we thought it was going to be easy," defenseman Kimmo Timonen told ESPN.com Tuesday. "That we were just going to have to show up. But it doesn't work that way."

Last season, the team's lack of consistency through the regular season was a conundrum for the Flyers. Early on, it appeared to be a recurring dream for the boys from Broad Street.

"It's been hard to recreate that success, but we know it's here," Knuble told ESPN.com.
"Easter egg hunt," he added with a chuckle.

Well, here's the thing about these streaky Flyers: The Easter Bunny has suddenly dropped by for a welcome visit.

After defeating arch-nemesis New Jersey in back-to-back games this past weekend -- games that had all the look of playoff action, including the unfortunate smoke bomb thrown on the ice in Philadelphia on Saturday -- the Flyers pounded the Atlanta Thrashers 7-0 Tuesday night.

"[The win against Atlanta] was a big game for a lot of reasons. You have this worry about a letdown after two emotional games like that against the Devils," Flyers coach John Stevens said. "It was an opportunity to get ourselves back to .500 here and really start climbing the standings.

"We just felt like that this was an important game, and it would kind of take away from those Jersey games if we didn't win this one."

A team that suddenly resembles the Flyers of this past spring scored early in the first period, early in the second and twice in the first 1:39 of the third en route to its 13th straight game with at least a point against the Thrashers. The Flyers also added a short-handed marker with 14.4 seconds left in the second that sucked the life from the Thrashers and the sparse crowd that made its way to Philips Arena.

What was significant about the short-handed goal, the Flyers' league-best fifth short-handed marker of the season, was that Simon Gagne scored it off a lovely feed from captain Mike Richards.

Gagne appeared in just 25 games last season before recurring concussion problems sent him to the sideline for the balance of the campaign. Although he thought about trying to return for the playoff run, he told ESPN.com on Tuesday that it might have been the most important decision of his career not to make an early return, no matter how difficult it was to watch his teammates on their inspired playoff run.

Gagne, the longest-serving member of the Flyers who was the 22nd overall pick in the 1998 draft, admitted he wasn't sure what to expect this season. "It was tough to imagine. There were a lot of questions in my mind before going back to play," he said.

The thing about an injury like the one sustained by Gagne is that questions always will linger about whether he can ever return to the kind of production that saw him top the 40-goal mark twice.

"Every year, you feel different," the Sainte-Foy, Quebec, native said.

But this season?

"I feel very close to the way I was," he said.

Who's to argue?

With two goals and two assists Tuesday, the former Canadian Olympian took over the team's goal-scoring lead with seven. He also has three assists. Stevens thinks Gagne has made a seamless transition back to elite-player status.

"He's a world-class player," Stevens said. "He really stepped back into being an all-situations player."

That's good news, given that the Flyers, already without defensemen Derian Hatcher, Ryan Parent and Randy Jones, also will soldier on without Daniel Briere, who is out for the next month or so with an abdominal muscle tear.

"We're just getting contributions from everywhere," Knuble said. "When you're struggling, sometimes you're looking at one or two guys to carry the load, but we have guys playing in all different situations and succeeding, and the team does well."

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.