The Flyers lost a rough one last night against Carolina, one in which they didn't even really show up for most of the game. It was two valuable points they flushed down the drain, and it's even more bothersome when you look at the upcoming schedule.
First up, the surging Blue Jackets. Yes, the surging Blue Jackets.
They've won seven straight games -- a franchise record -- and have lost only one of nine games in 2014.They are playing some of the best hockey the Columbus Blue Jackets have ever played, and a regulation win over the Flyers tonight would push them ahead in the Metropolitan Division standings. Nathan Horton is healthy for them finally, and Sergei Bobrovsky has been playing really well since returning from injury, too.
On Saturday, the Bruins
After the tough, important divisional test against Columbus tonight (I still can't believe that's a real sentence), the Flyers will be back home against the Bruins. They've been a little up and down lately, with some subpar play from Tuukka Rask and an injury to Dennis Seidenberg hurting them on defense, but the Bruins are still one of the best, toughest teams in a weak Eastern Conference, and it's going to be another really hard game on Saturday afternoon.
Tuesday: Hello, Detroit
Detroit has been a lot weaker this season than usual, which is ironic since everybody thought they'd dominate a mediocre Eastern Conference after decades in the hard-fought West.
Over this stretch of games coming up for the Flyers, the Red Wings are probably their *easiest* opponent, and while that's an indictment over how the Wings have played this season, it's not really much of a consolation. They still have Datsyuk, Zetterberg & Co., and they're neck-and-neck with the Flyers in the standings. That could matter once if it comes down to wild card playoff seeding.
Thursday: the league's best team, on the road
The Anaheim Ducks are, at least according to the standings, the best team in the NHL. The Flyers will play them, in Anaheim, next Thursday night. Three tough games and a cross-country flight later, it's still not getting any easier for these guys. The Ducks have scored more goals than any team besides Chicago. They have firepower up and down their lineup, solid goaltending and a nice little defensive group. They are a force, and they have lost on home ice just once this season -- three times, I guess, if shootout losses count.
Road trip continues against our old friends
To begin February, the Flyers will remain in Southern California for an afternoon matchup against the Kings. We all know how good the Kings are, mostly because we know how good half of their players are from personal experience. They're a dominant puck possession team, and while they're fighting on the Western Conference playoff bubble, they'd be the third-best team if they played in the East.
California really sucks, huh?
To close out the road trip, the Flyers will be in San Jose to take on the Sharks. San Jose has won four straight as of this writing -- that'll probably change before the game on Feb. 3, of course, but nonetheless -- and much like Anaheim, they are dominant on home ice. (The Sharks have always seemed like a tough home ice team. Maybe it's because the ice sucks there and it gives them an advantage. They're known to have a really tough crowd, too.)
San Jose has lost just two games at
HP Pavilion SAP Center this season. They're just yet another solid Western Conference contender, from top to bottom. Antti Niemi is quietly one of the best goalies in the league -- probably only "quiet" to us because he plays 3,000 miles away, but whatever. The Flyers will have their hands full.
Then, Colorado at home
Ha. You thought it would get easier after leaving California? Sure, the Colorado Avalanche were propelled by a very hot start, but they're still a pretty legitimate team right now. They're third in the Central Division, right on the heels of the very good St. Louis Blues, and well clear of Vancouver and Minnesota, who hold the two wild card spots out west.
The Avalanche are a young team, but Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Ryan O'Reilly are all really dangerous hockey players. They had a bit of a cold stretch recently but have quickly righted the ship, picking up points in 10 of their last 11 games -- including that win over the Flyers in Denver after the New Year. Colorado won't be a great present as the Flyers return home from this trip on Feb. 6.
That's a look at the next seven games. Finally, two days after the Colorado game, the Flyers will have a chance to breathe at home against the awful Calgary Flames, a team they wiped the floor with back in December on their annual holiday road trip. Following that game, it's the Olympic break, and they'll be off until Thursday, Feb. 27.
But for the next two-plus weeks until the Olympics, it's a really tough go for the Flyers, and it's not far fetched to say this is a stretch that will make or break their season. The trade deadline is Wednesday, March 5, less than a week after they resume play following the Olympics.
If they don't perform well in this difficult pre-Olympics stretch, they could find themselves well out of the playoff picture come the deadline, given how tight the Eastern playoff race is currently. Time to hunker down, everybody.