On Jan. 22, as players went their separate ways for the all-star break, the Philadelphia Flyers sat 12 points out of a playoff spot, had gone on a five-game losing streak less than a month earlier and their hopes for postseason hockey looked bleak.
Now, one month later, the Flyers sit just four points back of a wild-card spot. Once trailing each of Toronto, Ottawa, Florida, Boston and Washington in the Eastern Conference, Philadelphia now only sits one point behind Florida and are hot on the tail of the Boston Bruins. They’ve leapt past Ottawa and Toronto and have taken a point out of 11 of their last 12 games.
Could Philadelphia complete one of the more improbably post-all-star break turnarounds in recent memory and make the playoffs? Flyers GM Ron Hextall has made it clear he’s not willing to mortgage the team’s future at the trade deadline and that he’s not going to be a buyer. But even without the help from the trade market, the Flyers have a serious shot at making it. So, what has been the reason the huge turnaround?
As hard as it may be to believe, the biggest turnaround for the Flyers has been in goal since the break. Following the all-star break, Steve Mason went 3-0-1 before going down with an injury on Feb. 8. Over his four games – plus the half game he played when he was injured – Mason turned away all but five of the 129 shots he faced. He posted save percentages of .957, .947, 1.000 and .933 in his four consecutive starts and had stopped all eight shots he faced before injuring himself during a TV timeout in the Flyers 3-1 victory over the Capitals on Feb. 8.
Even since Mason’s injury, the goaltending has held fast. Rob Zepp has taken the last two starts for the Flyers, posting wins in back-to-back games and stopping 41 of 45 shots he has faced. Before Zepp, Ray Emery helped the Flyers pick up three single points and a victory over the Buffalo Sabres, stopping 139 of the 152 shots directed at him.
Beyond the goaltending, though, it’s the Flyers play at 5-on-5 that has vastly improved and put them in a position where they may be able to sneak into the final wild-card spot, even with Mason sidelined until at least the middle of the coming week.
Before the break, Philadelphia was 22nd in the league at 5-on-5 Corsi For percentage at 48.8. In turn, the team’s 5-on-5 save percentage was middle of the pack at .924. It stands to reason that the puck being in their own zone more than their opposition’s led to more scoring chances which resulted in a lower save percentage. With the score close, the team was even worse at possessing the puck at 5-on-5. Their Corsi For percentage dipped to 47.8 and save percentage followed, dropping to .922. However, the Flyers have been a different team since the break.
Post-break, at 5-on-5, the Flyers Corsi For percentage is 51.1. Teams that they maybe shouldn’t have dominated have been beaten soundly in the possession game. Take Feb. 21, for example, when the Flyers beat the Nashville Predators 3-2 in a shootout but had more than 57 percent of the shot attempts. In Sunday night’s outing against the Washington Capitals, the Flyers had nearly 53 percent of the attempts. Overall, the Flyers Corsi For percentage at 5-on-5 since the break has improved to 51.2 percent. Piggybacking off their improved possession, their save percentage is sixth best in the league at 5-on-5 since the break, currently rolling along at .929.
But more importantly it’s that when it matters, when the Flyers need to either hold possession for an insurance goal or get a tally to tie a game, they’ve been the seventh best team in the league at possessing the puck since the break. At 5-on-5 with the score close, Philadelphia's Corsi For is 53 percent. They also boast the fifth best save percentage at .944.
And all throughout the season, the one thing that has remained constant for the Flyers is their shooting percentage. There is no high-end or low-end, but before the all-star break the team was 15th with a 7.6 shooting percentage at 5-on-5. Since the break, they remain 15th with a shooting percentage of 7.8. Understanding the type of offensive output your team is capable of and knowing the team isn’t offensively starved gives hope that as goals keep coming and possession numbers stay strong there remains a shot at sneaking into the playoffs.
It helps, too, that as the Flyers' play improves post-break, the Bruins have struggled, going 4-5-2 in their last 10 games. Meanwhile, the Panthers have been as equally mediocre with a 4-4-2 record over their previous 10 outings.
Will Philadelphia make the playoffs? It would be a tremendous comeback, one which no one would have seen coming. It would have to be paired with a collapse -- or at least continued mediocrity -- by the Bruins and Panthers. But since the break the Flyers have been the best of the bunch and maybe that will be enough to sneak in.
Though all eyes seem to be on the tight Western Conference wild-card race, maybe it’s time to start paying attention to the pesky Flyers in the East. They're inching ever-closer to pulling off the unthinkable.