The NHL’s Eastern Conference playoff race is so close that teams could end up tied for the final wild-card spot, in which case the first tiebreaker -- regulation wins -- might become the determining factor.
That’s why the Flyers’ two games against the Blue Jackets this week — Tuesday at the Wells Fargo Center, Thursday in Columbus — are so critical. The teams hold the two wild-card spots, with Columbus a point ahead of the Flyers, who have a game in hand.
“I don’t want to say they’re must-win games, but they’re games that will separate us from the pack a little bit if we can get two points from each of them,” center Kevin Hayes said after Monday’s practice in Voorhees.
Hayes said emotions will be high Tuesday and Thursday.
“It’s going to be a playoff-like atmosphere for both teams,” he said. “They know where they’re at; we know where we’re at. … It’s exciting as a player. These are the games where you want to be at your best.”
Columbus, coached by John Tortorella, is in the top wild-card spot despite having seven regulars missing because of injuries, including right winger Cam Atkinson and defenseman Seth Jones, two of its stars.
“They kind of went for it last year and they gave up some pieces, and everyone thought they would be not-so-good this year,” Hayes said. "But they’re a very well-coached team and I know Torts demands the best efforts from everyone, and if you don’t give that, you’re not going to play. And that’s how their team is. They’re a hardworking team and they play the right way, systematically.”
The Flyers, who are without Oskar Lindblom (Ewing’s sarcoma), Nolan Patrick (migraines) and Shayne Gostisbehere (knee), have also overcome injuries and illnesses and put themselves in a playoff spot.
“We’re confident the way we’ve played the last seven to 10 games,” right winger Jake Voracek said. “I think if we do our job, we should be able to find a way.”
The Blue Jackets have lost five straight (0-2-3); they have dropped both decisions against the Flyers this season, losing by 7-4 on Oct. 26 and 3-2 on Nov. 27. In the first game, the Flyers, stunningly, scored five goals in the last 9 minutes, 8 seconds to overcome a 4-2 deficit.
“Every game with them is a hard, grinding game,” Voracek said. “They don’t make many mistakes, so every time you have an opportunity to score, you have to make sure you [do]. They’ve been playing very well defensively.”
The Jackets and Islanders, who hold third place in the Metropolitan Division based on the tiebreaker, each have 72 points. The Flyers (71 points) and Carolina (70 points) are tied in regulation wins (23). Carolina has a game in hand on the Flyers.
The Islanders also have a game in hand on the Flyers; they have 22 regulation wins.
Coach Alain Vigneault, who will give Carter Hart his third straight start Tuesday, likes the Flyers’ play recently, even though they are coming off a slow start in a 5-3 loss Saturday in Tampa.
“I think we’ve shown some real strengths to our play,” he said. “Obviously, it’s not perfect and it’s never going to be. But there have been portions, both with the puck and without the puck, where we’ve played real sound, real high-percentage, real solid [hockey].
“Obviously, we need to put it all together, but if you combine that with the fact that we don’t quit. … whether we have the lead or we’re down, we keep coming. That’s a real positive sign, and it’s going to take that type of hockey and that type of attitude moving forward to get into the playoffs.”
Vigneault said he believes the team has grown “both offensively and defensively” during the season, “and that’s one of the reasons why I believe we’re going to get in” the playoffs. “We’re in a tough division. That’s the reality. Anywhere else, we’d be in pretty good shape, but we’re in the toughest division. You’ve got to take that challenge head-on and make sure you get in.”