This past weekend’s home-and-home sweep of the Pittsburgh Penguins felt like playoff hockey for the Philadelphia Flyers. The season-defining takedown of their bitter rivals two times over 24 hours brought with it a sensation that the team deserved some sort of respite or reward for the complete effort. Unfortunately, in today’s NHL, there is no time for celebrating no matter who the opponent. The fact of the matter is, the Flyers run toward the postseason only gets more difficult from here.
Don’t be mistaken, the Penguins are an elite NHL club and beating them by a combined 8-3 mark and holding superstars Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby pointless is a tremendous accomplishment. However, the Flyers are still stuck in a Metropolitan division logjam that has teams cycling in and out of playoff position on a daily basis.
Currently, the Flyers sit 2nd in the division with 77 points in 67 games played. Philadelphia’s position is an advantageous one, given the fact that they have two games in hand over teams like the Rangers & Capitals and also have more regulation/overtime wins than Washington and Columbus. ROW is used as a tiebreaker in end-of-season scenarios, so consider the team’s struggles in shootouts and their ability to win games the old-fashioned way a blessing. Given the way they’ve played since their miserable 1-7-0 start, the Flyers are probably kicking themselves for starting off so poorly. That said, every team goes through swoons over the course of the season. Philadelphia’s just happened to occur right from the onset.
Nevertheless, coach Craig Berube‘s squad has scratched and clawed and find themselves playing some of their best hockey of the season. According to Playoffstatus.com, the Flyers have an 82% chance of making the postseason and more likely to attain one of the guaranteed slots awarded to the top three finishers in each of the NHL’s new divisions. Late season NHL hockey is far from a science, however. Each member of the Orange-and-Black will tell you the same thing when asked what they have to do to ensure themselves a playoff berth after missing last season’s tournament for just the second time in twenty years. Perhaps nobody put it better than ‘Chief’ when it came to discussing how the team should respond to this weekend’s showing.
“I think it’s just points, but I think our team will get confidence from this. I think any time we can come in and beat Pittsburgh twice, it’s a big boost. That’s a very good team over there, very well-coached, they play hard, they’ve got great players. It’s good, but it’s over with now.”
The quote, courtesy of Daily News Columnist Rich Hoffman’s article, captured the harsh reality that is life in the NHL. Every team is dealing with the same sort of ebbs and flows of the season and it is the clubs who are best able to put both success and failure in the rear-view mirror who ultimately succeed in the end. The Flyers had better put their two wins over the first place Pens behind them quickly, because their next wave of opponents might be even better.
Starting on Tuesday, when the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks come to the Wells Fargo Center, the Flyers will face a string of 10 opponents who, if the season finished today, would qualify for the playoffs. This group includes two of the four division leaders (the Flyers just played the division-leading Penguins), a road game against the Rangers, and two games against the best team in hockey: the St. Louis Blues. Even with seven of the ten games being played on home ice, where the Flyers are 19-12-1, there will be no relief in sight until the team hosts the Buffalo Sabres on April 6th. If Philadelphia ends up making the NHL’s postseason tournament, their performance over the next 2 1/2 weeks will go a long way in solidifying their position.
Before crouching in a corner in fear of the gauntlet that lies ahead, keep in mind that the Flyers are among the hottest teams in the league. In the Eastern Conference, only the Boston Bruins (8-1-1) have posted a better record than Philadelphia in their last 10 games (Flyers are 7-2-1) and it would appear the team is honing in on the style of play that gives them the best chance to win. Look no further than this past weekend if you want to know the equation for Flyer victories. It can be summed up with special teams success (4/7 on PP; 9/9 on PK), timely goaltending from Steve Mason (3 goals allowed in 2 games), strong contributions from the teams young core pieces, solid play from the blue line, and Claude Giroux racking up points at the highest rate in the NHL.
The @NHLFlyers improved to 28-12-3 when Claude Giroux registers at least one point this season, including 12 consecutive victories.
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) March 17, 2014
Suddenly in the thick of the Hart Trophy conversation (Crosby should and will win it), Giroux has spearheaded the Flyers to their latest stretch of success. Prior to this weekend’s tilt with the Penguins, the Canadian Press’s Stephen Whyno penned an excellent piece on the pulse of the Flyers as it relates to their fiery captain. The quotes of both current and former Flyers should quell any doubt as to whether the team made the correct choice slapping the ‘C’ on Giroux’s sweater.
“He’s the best player on our team, so I think it’s only natural if he’s going the rest of us are going, I think he’s a perfect example of a captain in this league. He leads by example, and everyone in here follows.”-Wayne Simmonds
“He’s just kind of that guy who thrives under the challenge of being the go-to guy who wants the puck on his stick in all situations, wants to be out there to make a difference, That’s probably his best attribute aside from all the skill that he has.”-Toronto forward James van Riemsdyk
The telling bites, (h/t @SWhyno), only reinforce what has been on display on the ice for the Flyers when Giroux is on his game. With Philadelphia breaking a franchise record for third period comebacks (11), it is often the inspired play of their captain that has the team playing hard until the final gun. Often times, the best players are the ones who end up leading their team to the playoffs. Right now, Giroux is playing as well as anyone in the NHL and if he continues, the chances are the Flyers will collect enough points to reach the postseason.
Giroux is far from the only cog in the wheel that has keyed Philadelphia’s recent success. Much like he did in the Flyers 2011-2012 playoff win over the Penguins, Sean Couturier put on a world-class display of two-way hockey against the best hockey player in the world. the combination of Couturier and Matt Read stifled MVP front-runner Sidney Crosby in a way that the Penguins captain is not used to against his cross-town foes.
Crosby was pointless in two straight games against the Flyers for first time since 2007 per Jonesy. Listen live: http://t.co/7wwff5BLQH
— WIP Morning Show (@WIPMorningShow) March 17, 2014
It is becoming more and more apparent why the organization places such high value on Couturier and is reluctant to include the young center in any number of trade packages. As his offensive game continues to develop at a steady rate, one could make the argument that the 21-year-old is on the cusp of being a perennial Selke Award finalist, given to the NHL’s top defensive forward. Couturier garnered some of the highest praise during each of the two broadcasts in the Flyers back-to-back wins. In his weekly ’30 thoughts’ column, Hockey Night in Canada’s Elliotte Friedman dedicated two of his snippets to Philadelphia’s stifling center.
15. For all the criticism the Flyers take about contract decisions, remember this: Sean Couturier and Matt Read manhandled the Pittsburgh Penguins’ best players twice in 24 hours. The duo is signed for the next two years at a combined salary-cap hit of $5.375 million.
16. The story’s been in this blog before, but approximately five years ago, Philly wanted Jay Bouwmeester from Florida and the Panthers asked for Claude Giroux — before the current Flyers captain was an established player. Paul Holmgren said no, a franchise-altering move. Someday, we’re going to find out how many times he said no about Couturier. The Los Angeles Kings asked for sure last summer, when Jonathan Bernier was on the move, but the Flyers said no dice. I don’t know how much Couturier will score, but he’s an elite shutdown player.
One could spend time discussing each member of the Flyers team at this point of the season. The fact of the matter is, there are very few apparent holes on the roster as it currently stands and the team is getting substantial contributions from its impact players. Should they continue to play solid, fundamental hockey with an emphasis on puck support and decision-making, the Flyers can emerge from this daunting stretch in prime position to lock up a playoff berth. For much of the season, I have been hesitant to hitch my wagon to the Flyers as a legitimate playoff contender. For me, it was about passing the eye test, something they were unable to do prior to the Olympic break. Now, if they can play the full 60-minute style of game they did against the Penguins on Saturday and show the same sort of collectiveness in the face of a furious Pittsburgh comeback on Sunday, I will continue to eat crow on my previous skepticism. As we all know, crazy things tend to happen in the NHL playoffs. The hard part is getting in and after that, anything can happen.