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Healed and Dangerous

Besieged all season by injuries--including ones that sidelined stars like Peter Forsberg and Simon Gagné--the Philadelphia Flyers are finally getting healthy. Playoff opponents beware: Adversity has made them stronger

Ken Hitchcock, thecoach of the Philadelphia Flyers, is a Civil War buff who understands theramifications of casualties. Asked if he feels a kinship to any particulargeneral this season, one in which the Flyers have lost some 350 man games (andcounting) to injury, Hitchcock answers without hesitation. "A.P. Hill,"he says. "Hill fought for the Confederacy and lost a lot of guys, so he wasconstantly having to regroup." ¶ Scholars of the War Between the Statesremember Ambrose Powell Hill as one of Robert E. Lee's most battle-worthydivision commanders. He led his fast-moving Light Division into many bloodyengagements--Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Wilderness--wearinghis signature red battle shirt. Oft-wounded, and frequently ill throughout thewar, Hill took to traveling with an ambulance. ¶ Hitchcock knows the feeling.Every time he yells, "Charge!" it seems the medics come out.Philadelphia went four months without playing the same lineup more than twogames in a row because of injury, and only one player, right wing Mike Knuble,has not missed a game. Captain Keith Primeau has been sidelined since Oct. 28and is out for the season, suffering from postconcussion syndrome, the samecondition that has kept defensemen Kim Johnsson (23 games missed at week's end)and Chris Therien (20 games) sidelined since February. Leading scorer PeterForsberg missed 17 games with groin and leg ailments, and steady defensemanEric Desjardins sat out 37 games with a shoulder injury. Rising star JoniPitkanen, a defenseman who's key to the Flyers' power play, missed 22 gameswith a sports hernia, while a fellow Finn, forward Sami Kapanen, was sidelinedfor 22 games with a right-shoulder injury. The list goes on and on. On Dec. 17Philadelphia scratched no fewer than nine injured starters.

"I feel likeI've coached four different teams this year," Hitchcock says. "I'venever been through anything like it. What people don't understand is, when aplayer returns from a serious injury, it takes him time to regain hisconfidence. Pitkanen missed seven weeks, but it took another five weeks to gethim back to the top of his game. It's the same name and the same number, butit's not the same player. We've been buying time."

The remarkablething is that as the Flyers have been shuffling their players in and out of thehospital, they've still been at or near the top of the Atlantic Division; afterbeating the New York Islanders 4-1 on Sunday, Philadelphia trailed thefirst-place New York Rangers by just two points. The Flyers' fill-ins havethrived. When goalie Robert Esche went down with a groin injury (20 gameslost), 25-year-old Antero Niittymaki stepped in and, during the longest roadtrip in the NHL this season, backstopped the team to an 8-2-1 record. He wenton to lead Finland to a silver medal at the Olympics, where he was named MVP,and while Hitchcock won't say so, Niittymaki appears to have supplanted Escheas Philadelphia's top netminder.

In all, 12 rookieshave played for this year's Flyers, and at week's end they had contributed 56goals and 138 points. Three of them--Jeff Carter, Mike Richards and R.J.Umberger--are among the NHL's top 20 rookie scorers. "You don't want to seeanyone get injured, but it gave our young guys an opportunity," saysCarter, a 20-goal scorer who was Philadelphia's first-round pick in 2003."We were thrown into the fire."

"In Decemberand January we had a stretch where everyone who was healthy played in everysituation," says the 21-year-old Richards, a center who has emerged as oneof the Flyers' better penalty killers. "I've pretty much played witheveryone. It's been an exciting year."

Now thatPhiladelphia is relatively healthy (Primeau, Johnsson and Therien are stillout), Hitchcock believes the whole experience has brought the Flyers closertogether. "I hope we don't live in that world again, but having gonethrough it, I think we're better for it," he says. "That's how youbuild your team--through adversity. Not during the good times. These guysdidn't whine. They held together. It built a steeliness in them. When thingswere darkest here we won a lot of games on pure emotion."

Emotion won't beenough to carry Philadelphia, a team with Stanley Cup aspirations, through theimpending playoff grind. The Flyers will also need to cut down on their goalsagainst. Led by their big line of Forsberg (19 goals, 54 assists), Simon Gagné(42, 30) and Knuble (31, 29), Philadelphia is the seventh-highest-scoring teamin the league. But the Flyers are 20th in goals allowed and a dismal 26th inpenalty killing. "Defensively, the continuity is missing," saysHitchcock. "That's where the injuries show up in the stats sheet. WithoutPrimeau to match up against the other teams' best players, we haven't had achecking line all year."

That could spelltrouble in the postseason, when the style of play is usually more like a siegethan an attack. Which brings us back to the fate of Hitchcock's beloved Gen.A.P. Hill. On April 2, 1865, seven days before Lee surrendered at Appomattox,Hill heard that the Yanks had breached the Rebel line of defense during thesiege of Petersburg. Gamely rising from his sickbed to rally his troops, Hillcrossed paths with a pair of Union soldiers and was shot through the heart andkilled.

Hitchcock hopesthe Flyers' survival skills prove somewhat better than that.


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Photograph by Al Tielemans

MENDED MEN From left: Kapanen,Gagné, Desjardins, Forsberg and Michal Handzus are all back in the lineup after missing time.




Forced into a starting role, undaunted rookie Niittymaki helped lead the Flyersthrough hard times.