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Are the Flyers that bad, or are the Bruins that good?

Yes.

Columbus Blue Jackets v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images

There’s been an interesting dichotomy of fan reactions lately as the Philadelphia Flyers have seesawed between impressive wins and depressing losses. The unpredictable roller coaster of success and failure has caused manic shifts of opinion between “The Flyers look like a well-oiled offensive machine” and “have these hockey players ever touched ice?” As the fanbase has tried to keep up with the chaos and grasp this team’s true potential (or lack thereof), the Flyers’ Twitterverse has begun to look as foolish and disjointed as the 5-on-3 power play. The state of the team (present and future) is utterly unstable, and to make matters worse, celebration and condemnation have been flipped on their heads as wins have become cause for concern and losses give rise to fist pumps and high fives. But that’s beside the point.

The most recently trending news is focused on the Flyers’ back-to-back win streaks. The Flyers won four in a row before dropping a game to the Toronto Maple Leafs, and they wasted no time to win three more before surrendering a loss to the Boston Bruins. The Flyers have won seven of the last ten games and nine of the last fourteen. Prior to the most recent loss, they outscored their opponents 50-38.

What should be made of this recent success? We might be inclined to dismiss it. “Well, the the Flyers went on a win streak because they played terrible teams,” some would say. Others would add, “And look at how badly they lost to the Bruins and the Maple Leafs. They clearly can’t compete with the best teams in the league.”

Sure, the skepticism might be warranted, but when analyzed critically, the logic cuts against itself and reveals a deep bias against the Flyers’ success. When the Flyers win, blame is cast to the opponent—“The Coyotes are terrible.” When the Flyers lose, however, blame is cast to the Flyers, not to the opponent—“The Flyers are terrible.” There’s no circumstance in which Flyers are given credit for winning or an excuse for losing.

If a win is treated as a referendum on the opponent, a loss should be as well. Alternatively, if a loss is a referendum on the Flyers’ performance, a win should be as well. Instead, fans have locked this team in the dungeon of “NFL Kicker Syndrome.” Make the kick and no one is impressed, but miss the kick, and everyone is ashamed.

This is not to say that Flyers are a top tier, Cup contending hockey team. There are too many missing pieces for that to be the case. However, this season has taken several sharp turns, good and bad, and it’s important to lean into those turns, good and bad, in a logically consistent manner.

Look back again to the Bruins game. Following the 6-0 shutout loss, there were a truly remarkable number of tweets bemoaning the sorry state of this hockey team. Sure, a 6-0 loss certainly isn’t good. In fact, it’s rather embarrassing. But the Bruins are 34-5-4 on the season and have a +72 goal differential. Yes, a +72 goal differential right now, in the month of January. It’s perfectly understandable for fans to complain about the loss, but no one can deny that the Bruins are an unstoppable force. Are the Flyers that bad, or are the Bruins that good?

Again, to be clear, the Flyers are bad. The question is “how bad?” Personally, I don’t think they lack as much talent as their reputation suggests. A cursory glance at the lineup would have you believing that they are a bottom-five team in the league, but many of the most unassuming players have begun to shine in different ways. Travis Konecny (on pace for 40 goals). Owen Tippett (best season of his career). Noah Cates (openly complimented by John Tortorella). Morgan Frost (14 points in his last 15 games). Samuel Ersson (.924 save percentage). Of course, the team lacks a superstar goal scorer and a true top line—two nonnegotiable necessities—but the season has given fans a healthy number of pleasant surprises.

We agree that the Flyers don’t compare to the Boston Bruins. But who does? As it stands, putting the Washington Capitals aside, there exists a 7-point gap between the Eastern Conference wild-card contenders and the division leaders. The conference effectively consists of Carolina, New Jersey, New York (Rangers), Boston, Toronto, Tampa Bay, and a bunch of other irrelevant teams who have no chance of surviving the first round of the playoffs.

The Flyers aren’t cup contenders, but they also aren’t uniquely terrible. They’ve outperformed most expectations, and they’ve proven to be competitive in the middle of the pack. It’s a fever dream to think that this team is anywhere near the bottom of the league, and it might be worthwhile to look at their recent success from a different lens.