Who are these Flyers? Tonight's visit to Chicago could go a long way in answering that question

Who are these Flyers? Tonight's visit to Chicago could go a long way in answering that question

Patrick Kane… Michael Leighton’s five hole… Game 6 of the 2010 Stanley Cup Final... Yada, yada, yada.

Whatever. That all happened three-and-a-half years ago.

Snap back to reality and focus on the here and now because the Philadelphia Flyers finish up their six-game road trip tonight with a visit to Chicago to take on the once-again defending Stanley Cup champion and red-hot Blackhawks, who have the most points in the NHL with 49.

The Blackhawks are the most well-oiled machine the league has to offer.

They lead the league with an average of 3.58 goals per game. They’re second in the league with 33.7 shots on net per game. Don’t forget their lethal power play, which is fifth-best in the league with a 22.9 percent success rate.

Kane is well on the way to having the best season of his career. With 40 points, he trails Sidney Crosby by just three points for the league lead. He’s also scored 17 goals, which puts him at fourth-best in the league. Captain Jonathan Toews is one of the best players in the universe. Duncan Keith is second among all defensemen with 27 points, third among defensemen with a plus-15 rating and is back playing at his 2010 Norris Trophy-winning form.

To wrap things up here in Christmas paper and put a pretty little bow on top, this is one of those litmus test games for Flyers that could help us figure out of the they are contenders or pretenders. Tonight help show us who these Flyers really are.

The up-and-down road trip has pretty much been a microcosm of the season so far.

On this trip, the Flyers won a shootout (!) in Nashville, sleepwalked to a shutout loss in Minnesota, exploded in the third period to win in Detroit, got blitzed in the second period of a loss in Dallas and blew a third-period lead and lost in a shootout in Ottawa.

The trip really hasn’t shed much light on what the team is or isn’t. The same questions about goal scoring, defense and consistent play still linger. It doesn’t help that second-line center Vinny Lecavalier was injured on the trip could miss up to a month.

Getting back to tonight’s visit to Chicago, look for Sean Couturier and his line to play a big role.

If Flyers’ head coach Craig Berube has his way and gets the matchups he wants, Couturier and his line will be out there as much as possible against Toews and his line.  Whichever line gets the best of the other will have a huge say in the way the game goes. Keep in mind that Couturier’s line has been the Flyers’ best offensive line recently, too. If the matchup evens itself out, it’ll be up to the respective teams’ secondary scoring. With guys like Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and Andrew Shaw, just to name a few, it’s a clear advantage to the Blackhawks.

Ray Emery goes tonight between the pipes for the Flyers. Steve Mason has allowed eight goals in his last two starts – the first two times he let in more than three goals as a Flyer – so he gets the night off. Expect Mason to be back in net tomorrow night when the Flyers finally come home and face the Montreal Canadiens in the second game of a back-to-back.

Emery, of course, won a Cup with the ‘Hawks last season and will be facing his old mates for the first time since. Last season with the ‘Hawks, “Razor” went 17-1-0 with a .922 save percentage and a 1.94 goals-against average in 21 games played. This season in his second stint as a Flyer, Emery is 3-5-0 with a .908 save percentage and a 2.56 goals-against average in 10 games played.

Let’s just say the quality of defense in front of the goaltender helps. But that’s another story for another day.

The last time the Flyers had a big game like this, Emery started and the Flyers won, 2-1, in Pittsburgh.

Long story short, this game will go a long in proving whether the Flyers can hang with the big boys of the NHL or whether they aren’t much better than a middle of the pack team.

Either way, it’s never a bad thing to have an excuse to look at the Blackhawks’ beautiful sweaters. Best uniform in pro sports right there.

Nerlens Noel excited for impending return to game action

Nerlens Noel excited for impending return to game action

NEW ORLEANS -- The weeks and months have quickly piled up. Nerlens Noel has not played an NBA regular-season game since last season ended for the Sixers on April 13. Nearly eight months later, Noel is nearing the return he has been eyeing for quite some time now. 

“It’s always an excitement to be able to play basketball after this amount of time, including the summer, not being able to play organized basketball at a competitive level,” Noel said Thursday. “I’ve been really looking forward to this. I think I’ve gained some momentum coming back from this minor surgery, and I think I’m in a really good place and I’m feeling good with my body. Everything is on point.”

Noel has been sidelined since undergoing elective left knee surgery in October to address an inflamed plica. He traveled to New Orleans on Wednesday to join the Sixers ahead of their 99-88 win over the Pelicans (see game recap). Noel continued his rehab Thursday while the team prepped for the game. 

“I’ve been able do five-on-five, full contact,” Noel said. “I’ve tried to maximize my opportunities of that with the team being gone on the road. I came down here and went through most of shootaround and it went well. Now these next couple of days, [I will be] going through practice, still working on my wind. I do like where I’m at now.”

The Sixers’ next game is Sunday against the Pistons in Detroit. Brett Brown had given Noel’s availability for that game a “maybe” (see story)

“I’m not sure,” Noel said of playing Sunday. “I’m ready to go with these next couple of days and see how my wind feels and how my body feels, which I have been feeling good. So it’s a possibility.”

When Noel does return, there is a scenario in which he could be paired with center Joel Embiid. Last year, the Sixers struggled finding the best way to utilize Noel and Jahlil Okafor, also a center, at the same time playing the four and five positions. As Okafor has said of playing with Embiid, Noel also believes his off-the-court friendship with the towering rookie would translate onto the court. 

“I think it would be something that’s experimented,” Noel said. “It’d definitely be interesting.”

Noel candidly expressed his opinion of the Sixers’ logjammed frontcourt at the start of the season. Since speaking to the media after his surgery, Noel has mentioned he is in a good mental place (see story). For him, that means being out on the court again. 

“I love myself and I love the game of basketball,” Noel said. “When I step out here to come and play, it just brings a lot of enjoyment and excitement to me. Regardless of what the details of it are, I just love the game and I’m happy to just be playing.”

Best of NHL: Flames edge Coyotes in OT for fifth straight win

Best of NHL: Flames edge Coyotes in OT for fifth straight win

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Dougie Hamilton scored 1:09 into overtime, Chad Johnson stopped 27 shots and the Calgary Flames beat the Arizona Coyotes 2-1 on Thursday night.

Mark Giordano scored for the Flames in a chippy game filled with big hits and multiple fights.

Hamilton capped a fast-paced overtime by deking Arizona's Mike Smith with a forehand before flipping in a backhander. Calgary has won five straight and eight of 11 (8-2-1).

Max Domi scored before leaving with an upper-body injury and Smith stopped 33 shots for the Coyotes, who have lost six straight and 11 of 14 (3-7-4).

Arizona captain Shane Doan became Arizona's all-time assist leader and is the fifth player in NHL history to own his team's records for games played, goals, assists, points, game-winning goals and power-play goals (see full recap).

Crosby, Penguins roll over Panthers
SUNRISE, Fla. -- Sidney Crosby got his 18th goal and added an assist to lead the Pittsburgh Penguins over the Florida Panthers 5-1 on Thursday night.

Conor Sheary, Tom Kuhnhackl, Matt Cullen and Carl Hagelin also scored for Pittsburgh. Matt Murray made 28 saves.

The Penguins have won four straight and five of their past six.

Jaromir Jagr scored his 755th career goal, and Roberto Luongo stopped 25 shots for the Panthers. Luongo allowed three goals on Pittsburgh's first five shots.

Panthers coach Tom Rowe, who replaced Gerard Gallant on Nov. 28, made his home debut. The Panthers have lost five of six under Rowe, but managed a point in three of those losses (see full recap).

Price loses cool as Habs beat Devils
MONTREAL -- Carey Price lost his temper after being bumped twice in his crease and made 19 saves to help the Montreal Canadiens beat the New Jersey Devils 5-2 on Thursday night.

Torrey Mitchell scored twice and Phillip Danault, Artturi Lehkonen and Max Pacioretty also had goals for the Canadiens in their return from a five-game trip.

Adam Henrique scored a goal and set up one by Taylor Hall for New Jersey, which ended a two-game winning streak.

Montreal had a season-high 49 shots on Cory Schneider.

A wild first period included three goals, four goal reviews and Price's meltdown (see full recap).