That sigh of relief you just heard was from Flyers fans, thankful to learn rookie general manager Ron Hextall will not be fooled by his team's recent 6-0-3 surge in the standings.
The Flyers will not be "buyers'' in 13 days at the NHL's March 2 trade deadline.
"I'm impressed with our guys' resiliency, for sure, but we're not depending on other teams to lose," Hextall said yesterday. "Five points is still a good haul. It's not as easy a feat as it seems, but it's certainly plausible.
"I still like our spot better than a couple weeks ago. We're still in a tough spot. We can't only win. Other teams have to lose."
The danger now for Hextall is not being lured into standing pat at the deadline. If the Flyers are closer than five points to the Bruins, he might feel like he owes it to the current crop to let them battle until the bitter end.
That would be a mistake.
Sure, the Eastern Conference is considered wide open this year. The Rangers were in a similar spot last December and ended up playing for the Stanley Cup. Even the Flyers were in this position in 2010, squeaking into the playoffs on the last day of the regular season after sitting in 15th place in December. But this Flyers group is flawed. Look closely at this recent stretch: points earned but the process flawed.
To hear Craig Berube tell it, they have been out of sync all season. When Steve Mason played well, the team let him down. They've scored significantly more with Ray Emery in net. Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek carried the Flyers for the first 4 months of the season. Now, with Matt Read and R.J. Umberger risen from the dead, Giroux and Voracek have barely found the back of the net.
"I think when you look at our team, I think you'd say we're a playoff team on paper and we've underachieved at times this year and other times we've played well," Hextall said. "I think 'G' and Jake right now are in a little bit of a down point. You look at [Sean] Couturier and Read and [Wayne] Simmonds and those guys have really stepped their game up for us. We've gotten contributions really from everybody."
The odds are still incredibly stacked against the Flyers.
"Because you say with every game Boston wins, we've got to win three more than them," Hextall said. "It's still tough. I don't know what the odds are. It was 3.5 percent a week ago."
Even if they were to get in, their only favorable first-round matchup would be against Pittsburgh. They're most likely to end up with the Islanders or Tampa Bay, two quick first-round exits.
If Hextall sees the Flyers as a playoff team on paper, then in his heart of hearts, he can't view them as a Stanley Cup contender. Even Lightning GM Steve Yzerman reportedly doesn't see his squad as such this season - and they're light years ahead of the Flyers.
"We're going to do it as is or we're not going to do it," Hextall said. "We're not giving part of our future away to make the playoffs. We believe right now we can make the playoffs. We like our depth. We've got a lot of depth on defense, obviously."
The Flyers have too much depth on defense. Clearing room should be the only priority. They have six defensemen signed for next season already, not including two players Hextall would like to re-sign: Michael Del Zotto and Nick Schultz.
Not flipping Braydon Coburn or Nick Grossmann or maybe even Mark Streit, if the deal is right, would make this trade deadline what the Phillies' offseason was for Ruben Amaro Jr.: a mistake in overvaluing assets. It's not like the departure of any of those players would greatly alter the Flyers' chances, as we've seen this season.
The fact prices are high right now for defensemen shouldn't mean Hextall needs a haul to pull the trigger. This is more about addition by subtraction.
Heading into June with the current six defensemen signed would put the Flyers between a rock and a hard space. For one, Hextall's rivals can count. The returns for those players will be diminished, with opponents holding all the leverage.
Plus, it would send the wrong message to top prospects Shayne Gostisbehere and Samuel Morin entering training camp, already playing the numbers game. No matter how good their camp, the Flyers will not have the room to keep them.
"We're not going to add anything," Hextall said. "If something comes up the other way [selling], we'll weigh where we're at as a team and what could come our way and we'll make a decision. We're not giving up a kid. That's not happening. We're cognizant of right now, but we're also cognizant of the future. Probably the biggest question to dictate is what comes along - and you really can't predict it."
The Flyers recalled goaltender Rob Zepp to serve as Ray Emery's backup, replacing rookie Anthony Stolarz. Zepp, 33, played all three games for the Phantoms last weekend (2-1-0) coming off an ankle injury . . . Kimmo Timonen is scheduled to participate in the Flyers' pregame skate today, his first practice with the team, if he returns from a morning doctor's appointment in time. "My vision is let him practice for a week and then we'll start having defining conversations," Ron Hextall said . . . Steve Mason (right knee) could return to the ice "in the next few days," according to Hextall.
Jan. 27: Last time the Flyers did not score a game's first goal. That was eight games ago. The last time the Flyers trailed entering a third period was Jan. 19 vs. NYI, also their last regulation loss.
24-for-27: Flyers' penalty-kill success rate since that Islanders game (89 percent).
13: Goals fourth-liner Chris VandeVelde is on-pace for over 71 games. He entered the year with one goal in 46 career games. His addition to the top penalty-killing unit should earn him a one-way contract for next season.
THE WEEK AHEAD
Tonight, 7 o'clock
TV: CSN. Radio: 95.7 FM
The Flyers will have a chance to atone for Friday's two-goal, third-period meltdown in short order, with the Blue Jackets arriving tonight. Columbus (24-27-3) entered the third period tied with the Islanders on Saturday but lost 6-3. Nick Foligno's magical season continues — he leads the Jackets with 22 goals and 52 points — but is his shooting percentage (19%) sustainable?
Thursday, 7 o'clock
Anything less than two points against the Sabres (16-37-3) is unacceptable. They aren't exactly trying to win — after riding out a 14-game losing streak with players stashed in the AHL and Ted Nolan still behind the bench. Zach Bogosian may turn out to be a nice swap for Tyler Myers, but Buffalo will have to wait until October to see whether newcomer Evander Kane can play the role of good soldier.
Saturday, 1 o'clock
Peter Laviolette will return to Philadelphia as coach for the first time with his Predators (38-12-6) on a staggering, 120-point pace. According to SportsClubStats.com, Nashville has a 63 percent shot to capture the Presidents' Trophy. Vezina favorite Pekka Rinne returned from injury on Feb. 5 and picked up where he left off with four wins in five starts with a 2.16 goals against-average.
Sunday, 12:30 p.m.
Game time was moved to 12:30 p.m. to accommodate an NBC national broadcast. The Flyers have a chance to steal the season series (1-1-1) with Washington. The Caps (30-17-10) have a 10-point stranglehold on the playoffs.