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Sizing up the final week of the Flyers’ regular season

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The Flyers are almost certainly going to clinch a playoff spot at some point this week. What should we be looking out for as this week goes on, and who is the Flyers’ most likely first-round opponent?

NHL: Philadelphia Flyers at Pittsburgh Penguins
This is a first-round matchup that is looking increasingly likely.
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Flyers’ win on Sunday against Boston was a big one for their playoff hopes, which went from “very likely” to “essentially guaranteed” with the victory and the two points that came with it. The Flyers’ magic number to clinch a playoff spot is now just three points, and we should fully expect them to clinch a trip back to the postseason this week.

So what all are we looking out for in the final week of the regular season? Whose scores do the Flyers need to watch, and who might they be facing when the postseason rolls around? Let’s dive right into those questions, one at a time.

When you say “the Flyers’ magic number is 3” — what does that mean?

So in sports, the “magic number” is a number used to tell how close a team is to clinching a playoff spot. Basically, it’s the combination of good things (i.e. wins) that have to happen to the team in playoff position and bad things (i.e. losses) that have to happen to the first team out of the playoff picture for the former to clinch a postseason berth.

In hockey, that magic number is measured in terms of points — in other words, a team can reach its magic number by either getting points (by way of wins or OT losses) or by the first team out of playoff position (in this case, the Florida Panthers, who sit in ninth in the Eastern Conference) missing out of points (by way of losses of any kind). So if the Flyers get two points in a game, their magic number drops by two. Similarly, if the Panthers lose in regulation and miss out on two possible points, then the Flyers’ magic number also drops by two.

So when we say the Flyers’ magic number is 3, the simplest way they can get there is simply by getting at least three standings points across their last three games (Tuesday @ the Islanders, Thursday vs. Carolina, and Saturday vs. the Rangers). If that happens, they are in the playoffs. If they end up with fewer than three points across those three games, they’ll need the Panthers to drop some points across their final five games of the week to make up the difference.

For example, if the Flyers go 1-2-0 in their last three games, that means they’ll get two points, which means Florida will have to drop one point in their last five games for the Flyers to clinch. Fortunately, that’s not exactly asking much; even a 4-0-1 closing by the Panthers would get the Flyers in under this scenario. Heck, even in the worst-case scenario where the Flyers dropped each of their final three games, all in regulation, they’d still get in even if Florida went 3-1-1 and picked up seven points in their final five games.

Anywho, that’s what the magic number is, and that’s what the Flyers are facing to clinch a playoff spot this week.

That seems like it should be pretty easy, right?

I mean, yeah, it should. The Flyers and Panthers play eight games between them this week, and the Flyers really only need two of those eight games to go their preferred way to get in. That should be doable, right? One would think. You never know. It’s the Flyers, and all.

But yeah, they should get in. Playoff odds sites all currently have the Flyers’ odds at making the playoffs somewhere around 98-99 percent (see here, or here, or here), so while theoretically it would be extremely Flyers for the Flyers to blow this, it’s hard to imagine they would.

So when’s the soonest the Flyers could clinch a playoff spot?

Tuesday night, and the odds of it happening by the end of that night are decent. Florida plays tonight (Monday) at home against the Hurricanes, then turns around the next night to face off with the Predators (again at home). At that same time on Tuesday night, the Flyers will be squaring off with the Islanders in Brooklyn. That’s three relevant games between those two nights — enough that the aforementioned magic number could drop from three to zero. Even if Florida wins tonight, the Flyers would get in on Tuesday with a win and a Florida loss of any kind, or an OT loss and a Florida regulation loss. If that all doesn’t happen, the scenarios extend out to Thursday. Hopefully it doesn’t get to that point.

So if they get in, who will their opponent be?

That’s a great question, one that we don’t have a great feel for just yet. Frankly, it’d be pretty silly for us to spend a lot of time talking about this right now, because so much is still yet to happen that will inevitably change this picture. So with that acknowledged, let’s talk a bit about who the Flyers’ first-round opponents could potentially be, because I know nothing if not writing extraneous words in the name of expounding upon unlikely hypotheticals.

Barring something unforeseen, the Flyers’ first-round opponent will be one of Washington, Pittsburgh, Columbus, or Boston. Micah Blake McCurdy’s HockeyViz site, my personal favorite among hockey websites that do work along these lines, projects one of these four teams as the Flyers’ first-round opponent in about 92 percent of end-of-season simulations. (Six percent involve them playing someone else, either Tampa Bay or New Jersey, while two percent involve them missing the playoffs entirely.)

via Hockeyviz

Without getting too far into it (because, again, this is all kind of pointless given how much hockey is still yet to be played this week), here’s roughly what would have to play out over the season’s final week for the Flyers to end up facing each of their four most likely opponents.

  • The Flyers would face Boston if they drop below New Jersey, putting themselves into the second wild card spot. Were that to happen, they’d “cross over” into the Atlantic Division bracket and face the East’s top team, which is likely to be the Bruins, who currently have the inside track to win their division. The Flyers do have a one-point edge on Jersey and are likely to win a tiebreaker if it comes to that — they currently have one more regulation + overtime win and they won the head-to-head season series with the Devils — so this isn’t terribly likely (Micah’s projections have it happening in only 14 percent of simulations), but it’s very much on the table if the Flyers have a bad final week of the season, or if they even have a just-OK final week while New Jersey has a good one.
  • The Flyers would face Washington if they stay at their current position in the first wild card spot, which is what happens in 31 percent of Hockeyviz simulations. The Capitals clinched the Metropolitan Division on Sunday night with a win over the Penguins, and are locked into a first-round matchup with that first wild card. Ending up there would require the Flyers to not get jumped by New Jersey but also not win enough to jump into the Metro’s top 3 spots. For this to happen, the Flyers would have to drop at least one point in their final three games, because if they win out, they’re guaranteed a top-3 spot in the Metro, which means that they’ll face one of the last two teams on our list.
  • The Flyers would face Pittsburgh if they jump into one of the Metro’s top-3 spots while Pittsburgh claims the other one. This, according to the model, is the Flyers’ most likely current outcome, as the Flyers end up against Pittsburgh in 35 percent of simulations. The Pens currently have the inside track on the Metro’s No. 2 spot, as they’ve got a two-point lead on Columbus, albeit with one more game played. However, Pittsburgh and Columbus actually play each other on Thursday in Ohio, and the winner of that game controls its own destiny in the race for the second seed (which secures home-ice advantage in the first round). If the Pens win that game, they should have pretty smooth sailing to clinch the second seed, given that their only other game this season is at home against the flailing Senators on Friday. And on top of that, a Pens win over Columbus means Columbus misses out on points, which would give the Flyers a chance to jump them if they have a strong final week. (Of note here is that Pittsburgh would own the tiebreaker over either of Columbus or Philadelphia.)
  • The Flyers would face Columbus if they jump into one of the Metro’s top-3 spots while Columbus claims the other one, as was largely explained in the last paragraph about Pittsburgh. Again, the big deciding factor here is most likely that Pens-Jackets game on Thursday. If Columbus wins that game, Pittsburgh maxes out the season at 98 points (99 if it’s an overtime game), a mark that both Columbus and Philadelphia would beat by winning all of their remaining games. Columbus has got a tough game to close things out against Nashville on Saturday, but the Preds will likely have nothing to play for at that point, so they may be resting key players and taking it easy. Who knows. Still, that two-point lead Pittsburgh currently has is the controlling factor here until these two teams play on Thursday, which is why as of now the Flyers only end up against Columbus in 12 percent of Micah’s simulations.

To sum this all up another way, then, based on our best guesses at this time:

  • If the Flyers play poorly this week, they will probably face Boston in the first round.
  • If the Flyers play OK, their fate depends on what the Devils do. If the Devils play well, the Flyers will likely face Boston. If the Devils do not play well, the Flyers will likely end up facing Washington.
  • If the Flyers play well, they will probably face the winner of Thursday’s game between the Blue Jackets and Penguins, with the Penguins being slightly more likely. Though, they could end up facing Washington if both of those teams win out outside of that game.

Again, that’s overly simplified and not foolproof logic, because the play of four different teams that play 11 games this week between them will ultimately decide all of this, and there are so many different ways that those 11 games could go. For instance, the Flyers could play pretty well (i.e. win two out of three) and still get jumped by New Jersey and end up in the second wild card, or the Pens could lose out and the Flyers could jump them with only three points, or there could be some other weird sequence that flies in the face of the above logic.

But for now, all we can concern ourselves with is what the Flyers will do. And at a base level, those are the most likely outcomes for each possible way that the Flyers’ last week of the season goes.

Anything else we should be on the lookout for this week?

There’s also the race out West, in which the Flyers have some draft considerations on the line. The St. Louis Blues, whose first-round pick in the 2018 NHL Draft is property of the Flyers, currently sit as the first team out in the West, one point behind Colorado and two points behind Los Angeles but with a game in hand on both of them. There’s a good chance that race comes down to Game 82; the Blues have a massive game in Colorado on Saturday night that could very well decide which one of those two teams makes the playoffs.

Until then, though, any loss by the Blues and/or win by their competition will help the Flyers hopefully secure a better pick in this June’s draft, and the Blues staying out of the playoffs would thwart any chance of their making a run and dropping that pick from the teens (where it currently resides) into the late 20s.

Go Flyers.

Hell yeah.