Ken Hitchcock, the
coach of the Philadelphia Flyers, is a Civil War buff who understands the
ramifications of casualties. Asked if he feels a kinship to any particular
general this season, one in which the Flyers have lost some 350 man games (and
counting) to injury, Hitchcock answers without hesitation. "A.P. Hill,"
he says. "Hill fought for the Confederacy and lost a lot of guys, so he was
constantly having to regroup." � Scholars of the War Between the States
remember Ambrose Powell Hill as one of Robert E. Lee's most battle-worthy
division commanders. He led his fast-moving Light Division into many bloody
engagements--Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Wilderness--wearing
his signature red battle shirt. Oft-wounded, and frequently ill throughout the
war, 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 two
games 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. 28
and is out for the season, suffering from postconcussion syndrome, the same
condition that has kept defensemen Kim Johnsson (23 games missed at week's end)
and Chris Therien (20 games) sidelined since February. Leading scorer Peter
Forsberg missed 17 games with groin and leg ailments, and steady defenseman
Eric Desjardins sat out 37 games with a shoulder injury. Rising star Joni
Pitkanen, a defenseman who's key to the Flyers' power play, missed 22 games
with a sports hernia, while a fellow Finn, forward Sami Kapanen, was sidelined
for 22 games with a right-shoulder injury. The list goes on and on. On Dec. 17
Philadelphia scratched no fewer than nine injured starters.
"I feel like
I've coached four different teams this year," Hitchcock says. "I've
never been through anything like it. What people don't understand is, when a
player returns from a serious injury, it takes him time to regain his
confidence. Pitkanen missed seven weeks, but it took another five weeks to get
him back to the top of his game. It's the same name and the same number, but
it's not the same player. We've been buying time."
thing is that as the Flyers have been shuffling their players in and out of the
hospital, they've still been at or near the top of the Atlantic Division; after
beating the New York Islanders 4-1 on Sunday, Philadelphia trailed the
first-place New York Rangers by just two points. The Flyers' fill-ins have
thrived. When goalie Robert Esche went down with a groin injury (20 games
lost), 25-year-old Antero Niittymaki stepped in and, during the longest road
trip in the NHL this season, backstopped the team to an 8-2-1 record. He went
on 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 Esche
as Philadelphia's top netminder.
In all, 12 rookies
have played for this year's Flyers, and at week's end they had contributed 56
goals 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 see
anyone get injured, but it gave our young guys an opportunity," says
Carter, a 20-goal scorer who was Philadelphia's first-round pick in 2003.
"We were thrown into the fire."
and January we had a stretch where everyone who was healthy played in every
situation," says the 21-year-old Richards, a center who has emerged as one
of the Flyers' better penalty killers. "I've pretty much played with
everyone. It's been an exciting year."
Philadelphia is relatively healthy ( Primeau, Johnsson and Therien are still
out), Hitchcock believes the whole experience has brought the Flyers closer
together. "I hope we don't live in that world again, but having gone
through it, I think we're better for it," he says. "That's how you
build your team--through adversity. Not during the good times. These guys
didn't whine. They held together. It built a steeliness in them. When things
were darkest here we won a lot of games on pure emotion."
Emotion won't be
enough to carry Philadelphia, a team with Stanley Cup aspirations, through the
impending playoff grind. The Flyers will also need to cut down on their goals
against. Led by their big line of Forsberg (19 goals, 54 assists), Simon Gagn�
(42, 30) and Knuble (31, 29), Philadelphia is the seventh-highest-scoring team
in the league. But the Flyers are 20th in goals allowed and a dismal 26th in
penalty killing. "Defensively, the continuity is missing," says
Hitchcock. "That's where the injuries show up in the stats sheet. Without
Primeau to match up against the other teams' best players, we haven't had a
checking line all year."
That could spell
trouble in the postseason, when the style of play is usually more like a siege
than 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 the
siege of Petersburg. Gamely rising from his sickbed to rally his troops, Hill
crossed paths with a pair of Union soldiers and was shot through the heart and
the Flyers' survival skills prove somewhat better than that.