You are not dreaming: The Flyers are looking like legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.

OK, OK, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. They still haven’t qualified for the playoffs, and the race is still extremely tight.

Or, as the man who has become a strong coach-of-the-year candidate, Alain Vigneault, said after Wednesday’s impressive 5-2 win in Washington, “We haven’t accomplished anything yet.”

But they have put a lot of people on their bandwagon. Heck, sports-talk radio has even started to realize there is a professional hockey team in town. That team, thanks to seven straight wins and a 17-5-1 run, finds itself in a heated battle for first place in the deep and gifted Metropolitan Division.

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— Sam Carchidi (flyers@inquirer.com)

The race for No. 1

Washington, the Flyers and Pittsburgh are the Big Three in the Metropolitan Division, with the Islanders, Columbus, and Carolina in pursuit as the race enters the final month of the regular season.

Washington’s lead over the sizzling, second-place Flyers slipped to one point after Philadelphia whipped the host Capitals on Wednesday.

Pittsburgh is in third place, four points behind the Capitals and three points behind the Flyers, who are an eye-opening and league-best 15-4-4 against Metro teams.

The first three teams in the division will earn playoff spots; there are two wild cards in each conference, and it appears both will come out of the Metro.

Here are the schedule highlights of top six Metro teams:

Capitals (86 points): 16 games left — eight home, eight away. Six games against teams in playoff spots, including two at Pittsburgh and one in St. Louis.

Flyers (85 points): 16 games left — nine home, seven away. Seven games against teams in playoff spots, including Boston, Tampa Bay, St. Louis, Dallas, and Pittsburgh. The Flyers will play six of their next seven games at home, where they are 23-5-4.

Penguins (82 points): 17 games left — eight home, nine away. Five games against teams in playoff spots, including two with Washington, the Islanders, and at Philadelphia on March 29.

Islanders (78 points): 17 games left — seven home, 10 away. Seven games against teams in playoff spots, including contests at Vancouver, at Edmonton, at Pittsburgh, at Toronto, and at Philadelphia.

Blue Jackets (79 points): 14 games left — five home, nine away. Ten games against teams in playoff spots, including road contests against Edmonton, Vancouver, Boston, Toronto, Tampa Bay, and Dallas. In other words, if the Jackets, who were decimated by free agency in the offseason, get into the playoffs, John Tortorella will probably be named coach of the year.

Hurricanes (75 points): 18 games left — eight home, 10 away. Twelve games against teams in playoff spots, including the Flyers, St. Louis, Pittsburgh (four times!), Boston (twice), Toronto, and Columbus. Carolina will play at the Wells Fargo Center on Thursday night.

Epilogue

The race for first place could come down to the last day of the regular season (April 4), when, interestingly enough, the Flyers, Capitals and Penguins will all be on the road. The Flyers will play in Buffalo, the Penguins will be in Ottawa, and the Caps will play at Florida.

For what it’s worth, if you include Thursday, the Caps have three sets of back-to-back games left, the Flyers have five, and Pittsburgh has four. Thanks, NHL.

Washington has several teams that look like cupcakes on its schedule — Buffalo (twice), Detroit (twice), and Ottawa fit that description — compared to four for the Flyers (Buffalo twice, New Jersey, and Detroit) and three for Pittsburgh (Buffalo and New Jersey twice).

Don’t be surprised if those so-called weaker teams pull some upsets in those games. Beating those also-rans might prove to be just as critical as beating the playoff contenders for the Big Three.

Regardless, very few people thought the Flyers would be battling for first place at this point in the season. In the preseason, for instance, I predicted they would finish eighth in the East and sneak into the playoffs. Others had them a tad higher, and many had them finishing out of the playoff picture.

So, as Gene Hart was fond of saying, buckle your seat belts.

And enjoy the unexpected ride.

The Capitals' Garnet Hathaway, left, getting checked by the Flyers' Travis Sanheim (6) during the second period at Capital One Arena on Wednesday. The Flyers won, 5-2, and moved to within one point of first place in the Metro Division.
Patrick Smith / MCT
The Capitals' Garnet Hathaway, left, getting checked by the Flyers' Travis Sanheim (6) during the second period at Capital One Arena on Wednesday. The Flyers won, 5-2, and moved to within one point of first place in the Metro Division.

Things to know

Joel Farabee’s call to duty

With veteran left winger James van Riemsdyk suffering a broken right hand in Wednesday’s win, rookie Joel Farabee will be recalled from the Phantoms and be in the lineup Thursday against visiting Carolina.

Farabee, who recently turned 20, showed lots of promise in 49 games with the Flyers earlier this season. He collected 20 points (seven goals, 13 assists) and had a plus-5 rating.

Still, losing van Riemsdyk (19 goals, 40 points) stings. He had five goals and 10 points in his last 11 games before injuring his hand while blocking a first-period shot.

“He’s an elite player in this league,” center Kevin Hayes said. “There’s a reason why he scores 25-plus every year. He brings a lot to this team, but we have guys in the minors who have played a lot this year and have contributed [to the Flyers] and I’m expecting the same thing.”

Important dates

Thursday: vs. Carolina, 7 p.m. (NBCSP). Carolina hasn’t played since Saturday and is well-rested. The Hurricanes have lost three straight since the Zamboni driver helped them beat Toronto.

Saturday: vs. Buffalo, 7 p.m. (NBCSP). Van Riemsdyk had a pair of goals as the Flyers defeated the visiting Sabres, 6-1, on Dec. 19.

Tuesday, March 10: vs. Boston, 7 p.m. (NBCSP). The Flyers are 2-0 against the powerful B’s this season.

Thursday, March 12: at Tampa Bay, 7 p.m. (NBCSP). Tampa, which is without injured Steven Stamkos, has won a pair of tight games against the Flyers this season.

Saturday, March 14: vs. Minnesota, 1 p.m. (NBCSP). The Flyers will be trying to avenge a 4-1 loss on Dec. 14.

From the mailbag

Question: What is the Flyers’ record when leading after two periods? — Greg T. (@phillygm711) via Twitter

Answer: Thanks for the question, Greg. The Flyers are 28-0-2 when leading after two periods. Lately, the second period has been the key to their success. In their last 12 games, they have outscored opponents, 22-6, in the second, including 3-1 on Wednesday in Washington.

Send questions by email or on Twitter (@broadstbull), and they could be answered in a future edition.