The Olympic break is over, and in just three days the Flyers will be back on the ice as they take on the Sharks at the Wells Fargo Center. In case you needed a refresher, the Flyers currently sit in third in the Metropolitan Division, which would be good for a playoff spot if the season ended today.
That's pretty cool. Unfortunately, things aren't getting any easier, and the Flyers' schedule the rest of the way, in case you haven't looked much at it yet, underscores just how difficult making the playoffs is going to be this year.
Here are the Flyers' remaining 23 games this season, with their opponents and their current points percentages this year in the NHL. (League-average points percentage right now is 56.3%; bolded percentages are above that average.)
Yeah ... uh ... yikes. You've got 15 games against teams that currently hold above-average point percentages. You've got nine games against the top seven teams in the league (Pittsburgh three times, Boston and St. Louis twice, and San Jose and Chicago once). In particular, that ten-game stretch between March 15 and April 1 is terrifying, as all ten teams that they'll face there are currently in a playoff position.
I suppose it's not ALL bad. There are a couple of relatively easy games towards the end there with Buffalo and Florida, and they'll start it out with some games against the struggling Capitals and Devils. But the difficult outweighs the easy here, and by a pretty significant margin.
Now, there is a positive here. Of these 23 games, 14 of them take place in the friendly confines of the Wells Fargo Center. As most teams are, the Flyers are a better home team than they are road team -- in terms of record (16-10-1 at home, 14-13-5 on the road), goals (+7 goal differential at home, -10 on the road), and even-strength shot differentials (50.7% in team Fenwick-For at home, 47.7% on the road). So while they'll be facing good teams, they'll at least have last change and will be at the place where they've had an advantage this year.
Regardless, if you figure that the last team in the Eastern Conference playoff picture ends the year with about 92 points (the average of the No. 8 seed in the East over the past five seasons*), that means the Flyers will have to pick up at least 26 points in their last 23 games. That's an 82-game pace of 92.7 points.
For a point of comparison, so far this year the Flyers have played at an 82-game pace of 90.5 points. Which means that they'll need to play even better than they already have -- despite what has to be one of the toughest schedules in the NHL from here on out -- in order to have a good shot at the playoffs.
The Flyers took on a really tough eight-game run right before the break began, and they managed to come out of it with a 5-3 record. They begin this stretch in a playoff position thanks to that. But now that they've had their break, it's only going to get tougher from here -- and there's not going to be much of a break again until their season ends, whether that's on April 13 against Carolina or at some point in the playoffs. They've done a really good job pulling themselves firmly back into playoff contention after a start to the season that had fans wondering how high they could end up in the lottery, but these last 23 games are going to tell us just how much of a contender this team actually is.
* The last five eighth-place teams in the East have finished with 93, 88, 93, 92, and 55 (in 48 games, which would work out to an 82-game pace of 94) points. This works out to an average of 92 points.