With back-to-back games against the division rival Blue Jackets on tap this week, the Philadelphia Flyers must deliver their best effort, and more importantly, they must deliver wins.
Granted, each successive contest seems to take on the mantle of “most important game” when you find yourself in the spot that the Flyers are, but that shouldn’t diminish what Tuesday’s game will mean, as well as its follow up on Thursday when the scene shifts to Columbus and these two clubs complete their home-and-home set.
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Entering play on Tuesday, both Columbus and the Flyers sit in playoff position, with the Blue Jackets up by a single point for the first of the two wild cards. But just behind the Flyers lurk the Carolina Hurricanes, one point back of them. There is a group of other teams that follow who can’t be entirely dismissed, but it essentially boils down to a three-team race for two playoff spots.
The New York Islanders, who lead Columbus by one point, could be forced back down into this battle if they go cold, but the real focus should be on the triad of the Flyers, Blue Jackets and Hurricanes.
The Flyers and Blue Jackets each have a single remaining game with Carolina later this year, and those matches will end up playing into how everything shakes out in the end. But the games in Philadelphia and Columbus this week will likely be the single biggest determining factor about who moves on and who goes golfing when the regular season ends in April.
To Columbus’ credit, they have wildly exceeded expectations this year after being entirely written off by experts before the season. There was a good reason for this, as several key players departed via free agency. There was no obvious plan in place to pick up the slack for such massive holes in the lineup, yet John Tortorella and his team have surprised everyone.
Still, when you put the lineups side by side, there is absolutely no reason that this Flyers team should be in a dogfight with the Blue Jackets. The Flyers have so much more talent and experience, and they have a goaltender in Carter Hart who is expected to be a star, while Columbus has a guy named Elvis Merzlikins.
Now, about Elvis. He’s actually been excellent. Since seizing the starting job in net after Christmas, he’s ripped off five shutouts and his save percentage is a sparkling .930 on the year. The 25-year old Latvian is basically doing what we all expected from Carter Hart. Not to dump on Hart, whose numbers are fine, but it would be a genuine kick in the pants to see the Flyers beaten out for a playoff spot because their franchise goaltender got outplayed by another team’s “out of nowhere” netminder. This simply can’t happen.
While the Flyers are not totally healthy in their own right, they do have the injury factor working in their favor against Columbus right now, as Seth Jones, the Blue Jackets’ top defenseman, is out indefinitely after undergoing ankle surgery. It’s entirely possible he’s lost for the year. It’s a big blow to Columbus, and the Flyers need to take advantage. They won’t miss seeing Jones, who scored two overtime goals against them last season.
The games aren’t won on paper, but this is a case where the Flyers’ talent should win out. It has to. And it will, as long as the Flyers maintain the same level of play that they’ve shown for most of this season, especially lately.
Even with all this, the most likely scenario is that these two teams split the home-and-home set, with the host club probably winning each game. But, even in that case, the Flyers must make sure not to allow Columbus to pick up a “loser point” by getting a game to overtime. Winning in regulation is key, and winning both games is obviously the goal here. Failing to do so shouldn’t lead to panic, but good and worthy teams manage victories when they need them. The next two games against the Blue Jackets are vital ones for showing what this Flyers team is made of. And it’s time to show that they are simply better than Columbus.