Philadelphia Flyers: In need of heart (and Hart) for crucial stretch

As they attempt to put a horrible loss behind them, the Philadelphia Flyers must dig deep to navigate their upcoming schedule.

Things are never easy for the Philadelphia Flyers. In case anyone had forgotten that, they provided a reminder during their ugly 5-0 loss to the New Jersey Devils on Thursday.

It was a true clunker, but it’s imperative that they move on quickly.

Now, with seven games in 13 days against conference opponents, the team enters a stretch that can either go a long way toward cementing a playoff spot if they perform well or derail the season entirely if they struggle.

The fact of the matter is that the Flyers are destined to be locked in a multi-team cage match for the rest of the season, with five or six clubs battling for three or four available playoff spots in an ultra-competitive Eastern Conference.

And, as luck would have it, five of their next seven games are against other teams in that cluster, with a pair of games against against both the Florida Panthers and Columbus Blue Jackets, as well as a single contest against the New York Islanders.

To focus especially on Columbus and Florida, these really are teams that the Flyers need to find ways to beat. Columbus is red-hot right now. Their home-and-home against the Flyers isn’t until next week, but you can already feel the importance. It’s frankly amazing that they’ve put together the season they have so far, as they looked like a team that didn’t have enough to compete.

On paper, the Flyers are much more talented, but that alone won’t win games. They have to match the intensity and the drive of Columbus and the other teams they face. Anything less constitutes a failure.

Florida, meanwhile, had high expectations coming into this season. They are in much the same boat as the Flyers: playoffs or bust. In truth, Florida is battling more directly with Toronto for third place in the Atlantic Division, which is a guaranteed playoff spot. But the loser of that competition then becomes the Flyers’ direct foe for a potential wild card berth. There’s not enough room at the inn for every team, and the Flyers simply cannot be the ones left out in the cold.

You know what else would really help the Flyers enjoy some success in their upcoming stretch? Carter Hart.

Ever since the team’s young goaltender went down with an injury three weeks ago, we’ve heard disturbingly little about his health. Is this a case where “no news is good news”? It sure doesn’t seem like it, as he’s already past the original projected time frame.

In his absence, the Flyers have largely played good defense, with the notable exception of the stinker against New Jersey. As a result, Brian Elliott has posted solid numbers in Hart’s stead, and the team even got a win from Alex Lyon last week.

But that can’t last for long. The Flyers need Hart back, and they need him now. We can safely rule him out for Saturday night in Washington, so that leaves 27 games in the Flyers’ season. If Hart can’t start around 18 of them and play effectively, then I shudder to think of how this season will conclude.

With games against the Panthers and Islanders coming up on consecutive nights this week, it would be a boon to have Hart back in net for one of them so that he can resume guiding the team’s playoff quest.

If the Flyers go something like 6-1 in the next seven games, it doesn’t guarantee anything. But if they only manage a record like 2-5, it would deal a crippling blow to their season. They are in a dogfight with Florida, Columbus and others, and someone is bound to have an objectively good season of about 95 points go by the boards because they lost out on the last playoff spot by just a point or two. The Flyers have to make sure that it won’t be them.

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And beginning on Saturday in Washington, they have the opportunity to afford themselves some room in the standings if they are up to the task. If not, they’ll only have themselves to blame.

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