Here are five ways the Flyers can improve in the second half:
1. Don't fall asleep: Part of the Flyers' dominance this season has come with the help of scoring first. They are 23-3-2 (.821) when scoring first, good for second in the NHL, but far too often the Flyers have taken their foot off the gas pedal and watched two- and three-goal leads evaporate, only to flip the switch and regain their edge.
So far, it hasn't cost them, as the Flyers are 26-1-2 when leading after two periods. But it's not a trend you want to start.
"The lulls in hockey games has been a concern,'' captain Mike Richards said. "But it's nice to see us bounce back after bad starts or things not going well. I'd like to see us consistently keep up and keep playing well.''
2. Consistent special teams: The amazing thing about the Flyers' run to the top of the standings has been the fact they've done it with mediocre special-teams play, something that usually costs teams. The penalty kill (currently 11th) and power play (15th) have hovered near the middle of the pack all season.
Last year, the Flyers were third in the power play and 11th on the kill. The units have remained largely the same. Chicago, the eventual Stanley Cup champion, was in the top five in both categories last season.
"Those things won a lot of games for us last year,'' Carle said. "I think it's similar to football, where a lot of games come down to turnover battles, whoever wins the special-teams battle more often than not comes out on top. It's huge at this time of year.''
"Some games we're lights out, but some games we need a lot of work,'' Richards said. "It's just something that we need to keep going with.''
3. Blue line bonus: Through the first nine games, the Flyers were one of just two teams to not have at least one goal from a defenseman. While every regular blue liner has scored since then, the Flyers' defense has chipped in with just 13 of the team's league-high 174 goals (7 percent). Braydon Coburn, Andrej Meszaros and Chris Pronger are all on pace to set new career lows in goals for a season.
"We want to continue to be consistent defensively,'' Carle said, "But we want to contribute offensively, too. It's not out of the ordinary of anything we've been striving for.''
4. Cut down penalties: One reason the Flyers' penalty kill may be struggling is that they sit in the box for more minutes per game (14.9) than 25 other teams. And it's not because they like to fight. Only Pittsburgh has more minor penalty minutes than the Flyers.
5. A better second-half start: While it's tough to compare this year's squad to last season, the Flyers hobbled out of the 2-week Olympic break last March with a 5-8-2 record in their first 15 games, putting their playoff lives on the line.
That won't happen again if Laviolette has his way.
"February, for me, is one of those setup months,'' he said. "You're not in the homestretch. You're not at the beginning. You're way past the middle. It's like the second period. You've got to set it up the right way and make sure you do things that stay on task and hope you keep doing things the right way to set yourself up for the stretch.''
If there is one team - more than any other - that poses a threat to the Flyers' run for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, it's probably tonight's opponent, Tampa Bay.
The Lightning, which is just four points back of the Flyers in second place, is in the midst of a ridiculous, 12-game homestand that keeps them in Florida from Jan. 23 to Feb. 27. Oh, and they're also in the state of Florida for nine of their 15 games in March.
That's the type of advantage that can put a team in charge of the standings.
"They've got a couple of really good players over there that lead the team,'' Peter Laviolette said. "They're a really good skating team. They skate hard defensively. If you don't skate with them, you're probably going to find yourself on the short end of the stick.''
The same is true in the conference. Tampa Bay, which finished 12th last season, is the only team in the East the Flyers haven't beaten this season.
"I would think,'' Laviolette said, "that we'd want to come out and set things right.''
Jody Shelley and Oskars Bartulis both missed practice yesterday, but they did accompany the team on its team flight. General manager Paul Holmgren said both players are "just getting over flu-like symptoms.'' There is no word as to whether Shelley will be available to play tonight . . . James van Riemsdyk, who sat out the last two games with a lower-body injury, said he is not 100 percent yet but "is taking the next step'' and getting closer to feeling normal. "It was a good time in the schedule, we had those extra days to work with,'' van Riemsdyk said. "It feels good. I'm happy it didn't turn into anything worse.''
1: Flyers' league-wide ranking in three categories: points percentage (.710), goals-for per game (3.46) and five-on-five goals-for/goals-against ratio (1.43).
7: Number of goals Danny Briere needs to set a new career high (33) for a single season.
17: Number of points the Flyers need in the final 32 games to match last year's total of 88 through 82 games.
THE WEEK AHEAD:
at Tampa Bay, Tonight, 7:30
For almost the entire season, Simon Gagne has been a non-story for the Lightning. That changed just before the All-Star break. Gagne, who missed 18 games with a neck injury, scored three goals in his last two games before the break. Still, Gagne is just 13th in team scoring with nine goals and four assists. Gagne and fellow Francophone Vincent Lecavalier - who combine for $15.5 million in salary - have a combined 38 points. Steven Stamkos, 20, has that many goals (38) in 51 games to lead the league. Linemate Martin St. Louis is right behind him with 60 points.
vs. Nashville, Thursday, 7 o'clock
The Flyers will barely have time to exhale before another tough test, against the Predators, a team that many players think is one of the most underrated in the game. Nashville, which has racked up 60 points in a tough Central Division, has made the playoffs in the West in five of the last six seasons. This game, which is Bobby Clarke Banner Night, is the Flyers' only matchup with Nashville this season.
vs. Dallas, Saturday, 7 o'clock
Few prognosticators picked the Dallas Stars to be in the playoff mix, but that's exactly where they are through 50 games, with a record of 30-15-5. Amazingly, they lead a Pacific Division that could be the first in NHL history to have all five teams make the playoffs. Goalie Kari Lehtonen should be in the mix for the Masterton Trophy as comeback player of the year and All-Stars Brad Richards and Loui Eriksson have shouldered the load up front.