At the All-Star break, before some NHL teams resumed play Monday, the Flyers, with 60 points, would have been in first place if they played in the Pacific Division, in third place in the Central, and fourth in the Atlantic.
Ah, but they have the misfortune of being in the NHL’s best division this season, so they were only sixth in the eight-team Metropolitan. They were also (barely) out of a wild-card spot, because two Metro teams, Columbus (Columbus!) and Carolina, were slightly ahead of them.
That means they don’t have much margin for error in the stretch run, which has 32 games to the finish line, starting Friday in Pittsburgh. More specifically, they must improve on the road if they are going to climb into a playoff spot.
The Flyers are 17-4-4 at home, but just 10-13-2 on the road. Of the 16 teams in playoff spots at the All-Star break, 15 had winning records on the road.
The good news: The Flyers have a very favorable schedule the rest of the way. The traveling won’t be nearly as difficult as in the first three-plus months, and they’ll play only two games (Dallas, Nashville) out of the Eastern time zone.
“We’re in a great position,” coach Alain Vigneault said before the All-Star break/bye week. “… We’re right where we want to be. It’s going to be tough. It’s going to be fun. It’s an opportunity for our leadership group and our young players, who are all getting better, to go out there and prove we’re a good team.”
Strong finishes by veterans Claude Giroux — who is on pace for just 57 points, which would be his lowest full-season total since 2009-10, his first full season in the NHL — James van Riemsdyk, and Shayne Gostisbehere would help. So would better road play from 21-year-old goalie Carter Hart. Oh, and more consistency from the power play.
In their first 50 games, the Flyers had 10 sets of back-to-back contests, and the traveling could be summarized in one word: brutal. To their credit, they didn’t make excuses and put together a solid 27-17-6 record.
After playing an exhibition game in Switzerland, they began the regular season in the Czech Republic, came home for a game, and then went to Western Canada for three games.
The hectic schedule rarely let up, and the Flyers, as far as back-to-backs and having three games in four nights, will play more games against rested opponents than any other team in the league this season.
“The schedule has been the toughest one in the four years I’ve been here,” said defenseman Ivan Provorov, adding he was “not making excuses” for any portion of the season. “It’s felt like we’ve always been on the move and never had any time to relax and recover. It‘s felt like the season’s been 100 mph.”
That’s why Provorov and his teammates welcomed this break. When they face the Penguins, they will have had nine days between games.
“It’s good for everyone to recharge and for some guys to heal,” said Provorov, mindful that Hart (abdominal strain) and Gostisbehere (arthroscopic knee surgery) are among the players close to returning from injuries. “We’ll come back with a ton of energy and continue to get better.”
Both Eastern Conference wild-card teams could come of out of the Metropolitan Division, though Florida or Toronto, each from the Atlantic, could grab a wild-card spot.
The Flyers are an impressive 9-2-3 against Metro teams, and they have 14 games left against their division rivals.
“Everyone knows the importance of divisional games in the sense those have a direct impact," van Riemsdyk said. "They’re four-point swings, In that sense, you’re taking care of business there.”
The Flyers will play 23 of their remaining 32 games against the Eastern Conference. That’s a positive, because the Flyers have a league-best 19-6-3 record against the East; they are just 8-11-2 against the West.
Heading into their break, the Flyers built momentum by winning five of their last seven games, including victories over heavyweights Washington, Boston, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh.
Will the layoff kill their momentum?
It did the last time they had a break. They went into Christmas with a four-game winning streak but came out of their holiday break by going 1-4-1 on a six-game road trip in which they were outscored, 28-16.
The Eastern Conference is so tight that another skid would make it an uphill climb the rest of the way. The Flyers will come out of their latest break with back-to-back games against two tough opponents, Pittsburgh on Friday and Colorado on Saturday.
The Flyers have the ingredients for a playoff team. They have a coach, Vigneault, who pushes most of the right buttons. They have a nice mix of proven veterans and young players on the rise, and their schedule is favorable.
The head-to-head matchups in the Metro could be the deciding factor.
As for their opponents, Carolina could slip because of All-Star defenseman Dougie Hamilton’s broken left leg, and Columbus, which has played over its head, could hit a wall. The Flyers can’t count on that happening, however.
In essence, the Flyers — and all the on-the-bubble teams in the Eastern Conference — are in playoff mode. Every period matters. Every shift will need playoff desperation.
As the late, great Gene Hart was fond of saying: Hold onto your seat belts.