There seems to have been quite a few moments this season when Flyers fans have said, "This upcoming stretch will really tell us a lot about this team and the direction their headed." While, in most of these instances, such a thought was warranted, few times has it applied so meaningfully as it does to this upcoming week.
After an All-Star vacation for everyone not named Danny Briere, Claude Giroux, Peter Laviolette, and hopeless romantic Sergei Bobrovsky, the orange and black get right back into the swing of things with a gigantic tilt against a team nipping right at their heels in upper echelon of the Eastern Conference this week. February 1, 2011 brings with it a contest against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the second place team in an extremely tight Eastern Conference, and a team that has defeated the Flyers in their only two head-to-head match-ups this season: 3-2 and 8-7 victories in South Philadelphia. While the scene now shifts to Tampa Bay, the stakes do not decrease in the slightest. In fact, a regulation victory by Tampa Bay means that the Flyers would hold a narrow two-point cushion (with a game in hand, mind you) over the Bolts. Still, there is something to be said for the Flyers' ability to be able to continue their tremendous first-half success into a difficult stretch out of a week-long break.
After squaring off against the Lightning on Tuesday, the Flyers head home on Thursday to take on the seemingly always-dangerous Nashville Predators, a team that sits just six points behind Detroit in the West's Central Division. The Preds seem, once again, to be a lock for the postseason, despite the predictable picks against them being involved in the NHL's second-season before the 2010-2011 campaign began. Three more difficult home games remain for the Flyers, as they welcome in possibly the greatest surprise in the NHL this season in the Dallas Stars, the Carolina Hurricanes, and the Los Angeles Kings to round out a tough five-game span. And, for what it's worth, the sixth game following those tilts is the season series finale against Tampa Bay right back in Florida.
All together, those five games right out of the All-Star Break gate will be against clubs with a combined record of 140-88-23, certainly reflective of a tough bunch of contests. View the team schedule here: Philadelphia Flyers schedule
The Flyers have been the best through the first 50 games, but they will be up against some mighty challenges a relaxing week for the majority of the members of the orange and black. Sure, all those other teams are going to be against the same obstacles as far as getting back into a rhythm of playing in games is concerned, but I don't think I need to remind all of you about how the Flyers have fared after long layoffs (a 6-2 loss to Vancouver after an 8-day layoff around Christmas time comes to mind). Still, this stretch presents the Flyers with a great opportunity: continue to build upon their record so far - the league's best - and make a statement during this "unofficial" second half start that the Flyers are the team to beat not only in the Eastern Conference, but in the entire National Hockey League. That message starts to be delivered Tuesday night in Tampa Bay. Until then, enjoy the break, but don't lose sight of what looms ahead.