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This was the year teams were supposed to be able to kick the Philadelphia Flyers around.

A model of success and stability since entering the National Hockey League in the first wave of expansion, the Flyers this season were primed for bad times.

Their coach, Paul Holmgren, was under the gun. Bobby Clarke, Mr. Flyer as both a player and later as general manager, had been unceremoniously fired. The players were too old, too young or too in-between and they
Sabres-Flyers rosters / C6

certainly weren't tough anymore.

So where are the Flyers heading into tonight's game with the Buffalo Sabres in the Spectrum (7:35 p.m., Ch. 29 and WGR)?

Second to the Rangers in the Patrick Division and in the top five overall.

"We have a competitive team," says new General Manager Russ Farwell. "I'm not going to tell you I'm not surprised that we're doing as well as we are, but I'm not shocked either. We are a competitive hockey club."

That's not to say the Flyers are a power this season. They are a far cry from the team that went to the Stanley Cup finals in 1985 and again in 1987.

They slipped so low last season they failed to qualify for the playoffs and, in terms of personnel, this team isn't all that different. If anything, the Flyers this year are older and more beaten down than last.

Earlier in the season, scoring star Tim Kerr's wife died three days after giving birth to a daughter. Shortly after returning, Kerr suffered a knee injury that will keep him down for several more weeks. Long-time all-star defenseman Mark Howe is struggling with back problems that have limited him to appearances in just 19 of the team's 30 games. Star goalies Ron Hextall and Ken Wregget have also been downed by injuries that have forced them to miss 26 and 17 games, respectively.

Still, the Flyers have carried on. Despite a 6-3 loss to the visiting Edmonton Oilers Sunday, the Flyers are six games over .500, second only to the New York Rangers in the Patrick Division, and winning both at home (10-6-1) and on the road (7-5-1).

Surprisingly, they have been doing it with goaltending.

Pete Peeters, a former Flyer, Bruin and Capital who was reacquired by the club two seasons ago, has been the team's salvation.

Peeters, thought to be on the way out of hockey, has an 8-4-1 record and is in the top three in goals against average (2.39) and save percentage (.918). The 33-year-old became the Flyers' No. 1 goalie Nov. 4 when Wregget went down with a hip injury and he has been the anchor since.

The Flyers are also getting strong play from right wing Rick Tocchet. Through 30 games, Tocchet picked up 20 goals and 13 assists, and with his rugged style of play (63 penalty minutes) he is a two-way force. Tocchet is the big scorer, but the Flyers have balance: 11 players have 10 or more points, and four -- Per-Erik Eklund, Murray Craven, Gord Murphy and Keith Acton -- have at least 20. With Howe sidelined, Murphy has picked up the offense for the defense, scoring eight goals and 13 assists, and is a
plus-10. Kjell Samuelsson has become the defensive anchor and is a plus-12.

The Flyers also have received major contributions from youngsters. Mike Ricci, picked fourth overall in the June entry draft, has contributed seven goals and seven assists despite being limited to 19 games by injuries. Rookie left winger Dale Kushner has taken some of the physical load off tough guy Craig Berube with 63 penalty minutes in 21 games. Even former Sabre Norm Lacombe is making a steady contribution with five goals and four assists in 29 games in what is largely a checking role.

The players are quick to credit Tocchet and Peeters for their good showing, but Holmgren also gives a nod to Farwell, the GM who let him stay.

"To tell you the truth, I was worried about my situation," Holmgren told writers this week. "But after I talked to Russ, I felt better about my situation here. I felt that he was a fair person and a fair judge."

Farwell thought the decision to stick with Holmgren, Clarke's hire, would provide some stability for the team.

"We're a team undergoing change," he said, "but change should always be undertaken with care. It serves no one to change just for the sake of change."

Especially when you're winning.

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