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Injury-struck Flyers still searching for answers to disastrous start

The Canadian Press
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The Hockey News
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Injury-struck Flyers still searching for answers to disastrous start

The Canadian Press
By:

Now, the seventh-year centre is only concerned with how he can get the floundering Flyers to win again. "Hopefully, we can start winning some games," York said Thursday after his first skate with his new team.

"I just want to contribute as much as possible and bring in a new attitude, some new blood. Hopefully, I can bring something positive."

York was acquired from the New York Islanders for forward Randy Robitaille and a fifth-round draft pick on Wednesday. He joined a team that had 101 points in 2005-06, but is dead last in the Eastern Conference in this season.

The Flyers took an 8-21-4 record and a seven-game losing streak into a game Thursday night in Montreal.

Lately, the only positives on the Flyers have come from X-rays and MRI exams for the injuries to key players that have them on pace to lose more than 300 man-games this season.

Star centre Peter Forsberg, who returned this week from a foot problem, is out again with a concussion from a crushing hit by Washington sophomore Alexander Ovechkin.

And while forward Jeff Carter returned from a leg fracture, still sidelined are goalie Robert Esche (adductor muscle) and skaters Denis Gauthier (shoulder), Sami Kapanen (back), Mike Richards (sports hernia), Geoff Sanderson (sports hernia) and Mike Rathje (back).

The York deal was the Flyers' second with the Isles in a week. They picked up veteran Alexei Zhitnik on Saturday for Freddy Meyer in a swap of defencemen.

In both cases, Philadelphia took on extra salary, but management tried to send a message that no matter how bleak things look now, they haven't given up on the season.

"Our objective is to stabilize - to try to get back to .500 and go from there," said coach John Stevens. "We're digging ourselves a big hole now, but I don't think in an 82-game season you can look at the big picture.

"You need to narrow your focus and think about right now. If we focus on getting back to .500 and we start playing better, then we can look ahead."

The Flyers' woes started before the season, when defenceman Eric Desjardins and captain Keith Primeau both retired.

Then, a deal that sent sniper Michael Handzus to Chicago for forward Kyle Calder went flat when Calder didn't produce.

Calder was known as a two-way forward but has not contributed much at either end. After 26 goals and 59 points last year, Calder had only four points and was minus-23 in his first 30 games as a Flyer.

After a 1-6-1 start, general manager Bob Clarke resigned and fifth-year head coach Ken Hitchcock was fired. Stevens became coach and Paul Holmgren was promoted to GM, while Clarke rejoined the team as senior vice-president on Dec. 4.

Then the injuries set in and losses piled up.

They have also been in a salary cap squeeze, sending young players back and forth to their American Hockey League affiliate club, which is also in Philadelphia, to save precious cap room.

Veteran forward Mike Knuble said the ever-shifting roster has made it difficult for linemates and defence partners to adjust to one another, but he added: "If you want excuses, there's a million of them.

"The bottom line is, you have to try to win the games."

Knuble admits that making the playoffs will be "a daunting task.

"I can see what will happen. We'll get healthy, play well and end up missing by a few points," Knuble said. "That would be the absolute most frustrating thing.

"But the number one goal in the room is to make the playoffs and that's management's goal. They're changing personnel here, finding people to patch the holes and help get us in the right direction."

Goaltending has also been a problem. Esche had a whopping 5.20 goals-against average in the seven games he played, while Antero Niittymaki's is a mediocre 3.20. Third-stringer Martin Houle is used only in emergencies, so Niittymaki has played 14 games in a row.

But Stevens sees signs the team may be getting stronger. Players who have struggled, like Calder and defenceman Joni Pitkanen, have played better of late, he said.

And there is some talent, starting with Knuble and team scoring leader Simon Gagne.

"Subconsciously, we may be looking around for reasons and excuses for where we are and really we need to not make excuses and come out and work as a team every night," Stevens said.

"I do believe we have the skill level and personnel that, if we follow that philosophy, we can win hockey games."

If not, Philadelphia's run of 11 straight years in the playoffs will end.

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Injury-struck Flyers still searching for answers to disastrous start