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March 29, 2001 - Injury won't be used as a crutch

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Injury won't be used as a crutch
 
by Les Bowen Daily News Sports Writer

For part of practice, John LeClair skated on the right side of Mark Recchi, with Simon Gagne to their left. Then Gagne took Recchi's right wing, and LeClair went to the left.

"Scrambled eggs," Flyers coach Bill Barber said later.

As a line nickname, it lacks the resonance of, say, "Legion of Doom." But the Flyers aren't worrying about appearances right now; they're just trying to patch together something that can get them through the final six games of the regular season and the first round of the playoffs.

By then, they hope, Keith Primeau will have cast aside his crutches and be ready to join them. They also hope there will be something left for Primeau to join, that they can somehow win a first-round playoff series without their dominant centerman.

"It's real bad news," LeClair said yesterday, the day after Primeau was diagnosed with a Grade II strain of the medial collateral ligament in his left knee. The Flyers have said Primeau will be sidelined at least three weeks, with the playoffs starting April 11-12.

"We've got to make the best of it. . .You look around the league, you see these kinds of injuries," LeClair added. "Good teams survive. You can't sit there and cry and feel sorry for yourself."

LeClair, Gagne and Recchi all have played center before, but of that grouping, only Recchi isn't just barely returned from a serious injury, so he will try to fill in for Primeau. Barber said the positions won't mean much once the puck is dropped - the players are free to slide around and look for open ice wherever they can find it - but Recchi will take the faceoffs, and be the guy who comes back deepest in the defensive zone.

Gagne came to the Flyers as a center, and moved to wing reluctantly. Still, with his left shoulder in a protective harness, it would be risky and difficult for him to take draws.

LeClair was a checking center in Montreal, before being traded to the Flyers in 1995. When asked if he could move back into a center-ice role, LeClair said, "Did you look at my stats in Montreal? I didn't do so well."

LeClair became a star after moving to left wing with the Flyers. He said that all kidding aside, he could line up in the middle, but not effectively, having played just 10 games all season because of back problems.

"I could play center. I don't know if I could play center right now," LeClair said. "I don't think I'm in the game shape or the game sense to play center. There's a lot more responsibility playing center. I wouldn't feel comfortable with the down-low coverage and those kinds of things. I could take a faceoff; I think anybody could take a faceoff. The thing is, being good at it. If I need to, I can."

The faceoffs will be critical, because they determine who has the puck, and because the Flyers haven't been that great in the faceoff circle this season. Primeau has been Barber's go-to guy in key situations. Although Primeau's 53.45 percent success rate is slightly lower than Peter White's 54.94, Primeau has taken nearly twice as many draws as White - 1,811 to 970.

Of the guys who figure to log significant ice time in the middle with Primeau out, White is the top faceoff performer by a large margin.

Kent Manderville is at 48.43 percent (355 of 733). Daymond Langkow, who will miss his 10th successive game tonight with broken bones in his feet, is at 47.24 percent (514 of 1,088). Recchi, who has filled in at center here and there, has won 44.24 percent (50 of 113). Dean McAmmond, who will center Ruslan Fedotenko and Rick Tocchet tonight against visiting Toronto, has played mostly left wing; he is at 40 percent (22 of 55) on faceoffs.

"I think we'll do it more by committee," said White, who will center Paul Ranheim and Justin Williams tonight. "Whoever's hot on that given night."

Of course, faceoffs aren't the only concern. Primeau has a team-high 34 goals this season. Langkow, White, Manderville and McAmmond have just 37 among them. Recchi, with 27 goals, inherits the scoring mantle in the middle.

"I've played it a lot throughout my career, so it's not a big deal," Recchi said.

In last season's playoffs, Recchi played a few games at center, while Langkow was recovering from a concussion. Recchi recalled a longer stint in the 1998 playoffs, with Montreal, when Saku Koivu broke a thumb.

"I don't feel any added pressure. . .There's no one guy who's going to take the team on his back," Recchi said. "We play well as a team, and that's the important thing."

Barber yesterday cast himself and his team in the role he covets - the scrappy underdog.

"I think the guys will welcome the challenge," Barber said. "Don't rule us out, which you probably already have. . .I have no fear. I know the effort and honesty of our team will be there, no matter what our bodies are."

Primeau was wielding a smaller set of crutches yesterday, as he took his first rehab steps, working lightly with his quadriceps muscle to keep it from atrophying. Primeau said he felt better than he had on Tuesday. He vowed to do everything he can to come back, sooner than forecast, if possible.

"The first round I'll probably end up missing, with confidence that my teammates will still be around," Primeau said. "I'm going to push it as best I can, try to force them to play me before that."

Langkow's return obviously would improve the Flyers' situation quite a bit. His left foot is pretty much healed; he underwent X-rays yesterday on his right foot, which has been the more troublesome of the two injuries. Flyers orthopedic surgeon Dr. Art Bartolozzi said Langkow had made "very good progress" and will be re-evaluated Monday to determine whether he is ready to begin skating.

The bulletin board on the locker-room door at the Flyers' practice facility contained a sheet torn off one of those "thought for the day" calendars, a quotation attributed to jazz trumpeter Miles Davis.

"You can win if you got the heart and tenacity and soul to keep on trying," the message read.