Flyers, in playoff bubble trouble, not going down easily
It was the ultimate tilting-at-windmills statement.
Crazy, right? That sort of success would be a tall order for a terrific club. For a team that was 19-22-7 when Voracek did the math back on Jan. 27, it seemed all but impossible.
But here we are, five games later, and Philly has deposited nine points in the bank. Not enough to dig the Flyers out of 10th place, but enough to think that maybe, just maybe, we shouldn’t assign them tee times quite yet.
Of course, the odds remain heavily stacked against Philadelphia. Even if the season plays out according to Voracek’s bold plan, those 25 wins would get the Flyers to 95 points. The Bruins, currently holding down the second wild card berth in the Eastern Conference, are on pace for 97. That explains why Sportsclubstats.com lists Philly, which is currently nine points behind Boston, as having just a 6.8% chance of making the cut.
That’s a deep hole, but as the Flyers have shown the past two weeks, they’re not going down quietly. And that’s amazing because, frankly, this is not a good hockey team. Outside of an excellent power play (currently clicking at 19.3%, third best in the league) and consistent offensive production from Voracek and linemate Claude Giroux there’s not an awful lot to like here.
Injuries and a lack of depth have sunk a defense that is giving up 2.81 goals-against per game and ranks 24th in the league. The goaltending has been spotty, with Steve Mason alternating spells of excellence (he’s on pace for career bests in goals-against average and save percentage) with three trips to the IR. Philiadelphia is bottom-third in possession, with a 48.8% Corsi. Besides its first line, the offense has been anemic, with every forward after Brayden Schenn and the dynamic duo of Voracek and Giroux on pace to finish below their scoring numbers from last season. The Flyers’ penalty kill also ranks a dismal 28th, and they have just two wins to show for their eight shootout appearances.
But there are signs that Philly’s recent wins aren’t just the result of a few bounces going the Flyers’ way. Their lousy penalty kill has allowed just two goals in its last 20 shorthanded situations, a tribute to improved discipline and greater success on the face-off dot. (Giroux’s face-off win rat’ is clicking at 59.2% shorthanded, better than his 55.9% all-around success rate.) They're also making smarter decisions with the puck, coughing it up just three times on Sunday in a 3–1 win over the Capitals, and only six times in a 3–2 shootout loss to the Islanders on Thursday.
And while there’s no stat for 50/50 battles, there’s a fresh hunger to Philadelphia’s game that is apparent in how often they’re coming out of scrums with the puck.
The trick now is to turn this nice little streak into a season-defining stretch. It won’t be easy, especially with Mason (5-0-1, with a .959 save percentage in his last seven appearances) likely headed back to IR after he suffered another injury on Sunday. No word yet on the extent of his ailment or how long he’ll be out, but every game the Flyers face with a tandem of Ray Emery and Anthony Stolarz (who GM Ron Hextall says is “not ready” to play in the NHL) effectively reduces their chances of reaching the postseason.
The schedule doesn’t help, either. Philly has 15 home dates remaining, all of which are crucial. The Flyers have been excellent at Wells Fargo Center this season, going 7-2-1 in their last 10 to run their home record to 15-7-4. But after a couple of soft road outings against the Blue Jackets and the Sabres next week, Philadelphia will have just two games remaining against teams with worse records. On top of that, the Flyers will have to knock off some of the league’s big dogs, including the Predators (2/21), the Blues (3/5), the Blackhawks (3/25) and the Penguins (4/5).
The rest of the schedule looks considerably kinder, but a team that has won only eight games away from home can’t take anything for granted. Eight of Philadelphia’s final 14 games on the road will be against non-playoff opponents, including four of the five worst teams in the league. Those all are must-win games, but the most single important date might be Mar. 7, in Boston—the only four-point game remaining on Philly’s schedule.
No, it doesn’t look good, but it looks better than it did at the break. And if the Flyers win the games they should win, they just might make this interesting.