Nearly two months ago, it seemed inconceivable that the Flyers would even be mentioned as a threat to win the Metropolitan Division title.
But a victory in Washington on Wednesday night would have them this close to the first-place Capitals.
The Flyers have won a season-high six straight games, and a regulation victory Wednesday would put them within one point of Washington. Both teams have 17 regular-season games left.
“This is huge,” left winger Scott Laughton said after Tuesday’s practice in Voorhees. “It’s definitely exciting to go into that building and try to pull out two points."
Flyers defenseman Matt Niskanen, who won a Stanley Cup with the Capitals in 2018, said his new team is “trying to build and keep our momentum. We’re trying to chase them down.”
The Flyers are also trying to hold off third-place Pittsburgh, which has a chance to get within a point of them on Tuesday night.
“Every game down the stretch is so tight. Every point matters,” Flyers defenseman Justin Braun said. “You don’t want to stumble at the finish line, so you have to be ready every night."
The Flyers barely had more wins (22) than losses (21) when they finished a 1-4-1 road trip with a 5-4 overtime loss in Carolina on Jan. 7. Since then, the Flyers have soared, while the Caps have faded.
After games played on Jan. 7, the Flyers have gone 16-5-1, tying them with Boston and Tampa Bay for the most wins in that span entering Tuesday. They started that run with a 3-2 win over Washington on Jan. 8.
Washington, meanwhile, has gone just 10-10-1 in that time frame, the same number of wins as lowly Buffalo during that stretch.
So the Capitals, who had the NHL’s best record (30-9-5) and were 15 points ahead of the Flyers (22-15-6) nearly two months ago, are huffing and puffing to hold off Philadelphia.
In the teams’ last meeting, Sean Couturier had two goals and Brian Elliott made 25 saves as the Flyers won in Washington, 7-2, on Feb. 8.
Elliott will get the call over the sizzling Carter Hart on Wednesday.
Both teams “know what happened the last game we played there, and they’re going to be gunning to get us back,” Elliott said. “We have to answer that. It’ll be a fun atmosphere. A couple of big teams playing a big game, so it’ll be fun.”
The Flyers are 2-0-1 against the Caps this season, and a key to their success has been keeping Alex Ovechkin goalless and getting strong play from their penalty kill, which is 11-for-12 in those three games.
“We’ve been coming up with some big blocks, too,” said Braun, pointing to Robert Hagg’s two blocked shots against Ovechkin during a Washington power play while the eventual 7-2 win was still in doubt. “Guys are willing to pay the price. We’ve been working hard on him. You have to know when he’s out there and guys have been paying attention. ... He’s a guy if you give him an inch, he’ll take it.”
The Flyers have had good breakouts and have played tight defensively against the Caps this season.
“We’ve had a good team game against them,” Braun said.
Taking away Ovechkin’s time and space, Niskanen said, is key to keeping him off the scoresheet.
“You have to be in his face,” Niskanen said. “If he’s inside 40 feet, you can’t let him shoot. He at least has to be contested. And I think discipline is important against them and not giving them so many chances on the power play."
The Flyers have outscored their opponents, 27-13, during their six-game winning streak.
“We’re getting on the same page now — how we want to play and what it looks like,” said Niskanen, who has 14 points and a plus-13 rating in his last 16 games. “Guys are buying into it. We’re getting better; the challenge for us is to keep pushing forward.”