PHILADELPHIA -- Mike Ricci is learning that before he becomes the heart and soul of the Philadelphia Flyers, as many expect the 19-year-old rookie to do, he must stand head and shoulders above the personal burdens he is lugging around.
Here are the slump-ridden Flyers, their confidence fragile, their offense on the MIA list, their Stanley Cup playoff chances flickering, and much of the stretch drive depends on the performance of a gap-toothed teen-ager who is younger than most of the athletes playing in the National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament.
That's a lot to ask from a kid who appears physically worn down from his first National Hockey League season. It's even more to ask from a young man whose mind can't help but wander back to his home in Scarborough, Ontario, where his father, Mario, is undergoing cancer treatments.
"It's tough to see someone in your own family suffer," Ricci said Tuesday. "I think the way it's bothering me is I've been getting frustrated a lot easier. I have enough time to think about him when I'm not playing, and I talk to him a lot, so I should be able to shut it out when I am playing.
"He saw the doctors the other day and they said it's a miracle he's doing as well as he is. So he's become an inspiration for me. The way I try to look at it is, he always fought for me, so I owe him a lot. Hopefully, we'll make the playoffs and he can come down here to see us."
Ricci, the Flyers' leading goal-scorer with 20 now that Rick Tocchet is out with a groin pull, refuses to offer an excuse for his recent slump, in which he has scored just one goal this month. The Flyers drafted the young center last June in the first round, No. 4 overall, largely because of his character and his unquestioned leadership ability.
Those traits were evident Tuesday as the Flyers tried to loosen up for the final six regular-season games, a segment of the schedule that begins tonight against St. Louis here at the Spectrum. They have lost six of their past seven games, in which they've been outscored, 34-14; they went 1-5 on a recent road trip, and they have fallen into a battle with Washington and New Jersey for the final two playoff berths in the Patrick Division.
Despite that trend and his own difficulties, Ricci seems determined to turn the problems into positives. More than ever, his father has become a source of inspiration. Ricci concedes that his first NHL season has been a grind, but he sees the three days between games this week as a chance to recharge his battery.