The Flyers are the closest they’ve been to a playoff spot since way back in November, but they’re also about to embark on a four-game stretch that will define their season. Starting Thursday, the Flyers play three contending playoff teams in three days: a huge six points on the line for a team currently five points out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
First up is the Capitals at the Wells Fargo Center before a date with the Maple Leafs in Toronto on Friday. They’ll have off Saturday before traveling to Pittsburgh for a Stadium Series rematch with the Penguins on Sunday night. After that stretch, the Flyers get the Canadiens back at the Wells Fargo Center next Tuesday, yet another team the Flyers are chasing and one desperate for points of their own.
There isn’t a gimme in there, either, and if the Flyers come away from this stretch still in playoff contention, they’ll have done so while surviving three teams with goal differentials of at least 25 goals and three of the hottest teams in the league. Washington has won eight of 10, Toronto six of 10, and Pittsburgh six of 10 as well.
But the hottest team among them is actually the Flyers themselves. With Monday’s 3-2 win over the Senators, the Flyers have gone 19-5-2 in their last 26 games to vault themselves into the playoff chase. Why 26 games? Well that was after a 2-1 win over the Stars back on January 10, when the Flyers were dead last in the Eastern Conference with just 38 points. Only the Kings had fewer points at that time with 37.
While the Flyers haven’t yet cracked a playoff spot, and they very well might not, it’s incredible to see how far this team has come in a couple months. At that point, already working with their second coach and general manager —and the season all but lost— you’d be hard-pressed to blame the players for packing it in. Veterans like Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek, Sean Couturier, Shayne Gostisbehere and others knew the chances of making the playoffs were all but lost. They also knew that they’d likely be seeing faces depart, like losing Wayne Simmonds, as opposed to others being acquired to help.
Instead, they’ve rallied together to go on a run only matched by the league-leading Tampa Bay Lighting, who are 20-5-2 since January 10, and might very well be the best team the NHL has seen since the heyday of the Red Wings of the mind 90’s. The 1995-96 Red Wings racked up an NHL-record 62 wins in 82 games, though the 1976-77 Canadiens had 60 wins in an 80 game schedule. Tampa Bay already has 53 wins, and can tie Detroit’s wins mark by winning nine of their remaining 12 games.
That’s wild, and the Flyers have matched one of the NHL’s best all-time teams’ best stretch stride for stride for two months.
Set aside all of that success and how great a story this team has become since the calendar turned to 2019, and reality sets in that this stretch is important for not only this season, but for the Flyers going forward.
Young players like Nolan Patrick, Travis Konecny, Ivan Provorov, Oskar Lindblom, Travis Sanheim, Phil Myers, and Carter Hart will get either their first taste of what the intensity of a playoff chase and what a playoff atmosphere is like, or they’ll get another valuable lesson. You’d rather the real thing, as some of those guys experienced a season ago, but playing desperate, contending teams down the stretch is the closest simulation you can get.
The Flyers, and GM Chuck Fletcher, can also use it as a measuring stick to see just where they stack up. How close are they to challenging a team like the Toronto, or Washington, in a seven-game series. Where do they need to improve, who can hack it and who can’t? We know what Giroux is made of, but finding out what there is in some of the young players at the most important time of the season will be a huge plus for Fletcher and the new Flyers brass.
Two things can happen here, and one is that the Flyers stay hot and ride this stretch all the way to the most improbable playoff berth in NHL history. If that happens, then the Flyers are a much better team than they showed for much of the season, and they’ve really got something here going forward with the pieces they have.
They could also run out of steam and fall short, but fall short finding out a bunch of things about some of the players who figure to be a part of the next Flyers team that makes the playoffs. They could fall short knowing that with half decent first half of the season, they’re a bona-fide playoff team with a glut of young talent all over the roster and one major piece of young talent in goal with Carter Hart.
The 2018-19 Flyers have been a wild ride, and we’re all looking at the top of the hill with our hands in the air waiting for the next drop.