As the post-season approaches, you won’t find many who would disagree with the selection of the Washington Capitals as the top contender for the Eastern Conference championship. After all, the Capitals have dominated the conference, wrapped up the Presidents’ Trophy and goaltender Braden Holtby could have a record-setting win-total by season’s end.
But Wednesday night in Philadelphia, it was the Flyers, not the Capitals, who skated away with two points in a meeting between the clubs. Aside from a second period power play tally by Alex Ovechkin, Philadelphia shut down the high-powered Washington offense, goaltender Steve Mason came up big when called upon and the Flyers found a way to eke out two points and take over sole possession of the second wild-card spot in the East.
The win was most important for the Flyers’ in terms of strengthening their playoff hopes, which seem solid with the inconsistent play of the Detroit Red Wings, but it also served as yet another example of why this Philadelphia team under first-year coach Dave Hakstol may be more than just a scrappy, underdog, wild-card playoff entrant. And that may be hard to believe given how much these same Flyers struggled early in the year.
It seems like forever ago now, but two games into the 2015-16 season — two games into Hakstol’s NHL coaching career, too — the Flyers held a players-only meeting after a blowout loss at the hands of the Florida Panthers. Not long after, Philadelphia entered a 13-game stretch from late-October to late-November where they won just twice. When that dreadful span of games was complete, the Flyers sat two points out of the Eastern Conference basement. Forget Stanley Cup contention, no one would have considered Philadelphia wild-card contenders at that point.
Around the same time that 2-7-4 stretch ended, though, the Flyers’ luck started to turn. Philadelphia won five of their next six games, and from there on out it has been a relatively steady climb up the standings. That has led them to where they are now — two points up on the Red Wings for the final wild-card spot with one game in hand and less than two weeks remaining in the season.
And maybe it’s in part to because of the way their campaign started, because the overall team success has been overshadowed by the play of rookie Shayne Gostisbehere or because they’re entering the post-season as a wild-card team, but it doesn’t seem Philadelphia is getting the respect they deserve as the post-season nears. Last night’s game against Washington is part of it, but over the past two months you’d be hard-pressed to find any reason to believe Philadelphia can’t make some serious noise in the East come playoff time.
In just about every statistical category, the Flyers have been among the league’s best since Feb. 1. Only the Capitals and Anaheim Ducks have accumulated more points over that span and only the Ducks, Penguins and Stars have scored more. Philadelphia has only allowed 69 goals over since Feb. 1, which is the eighth-lowest total, but the Flyers are one of only six teams to play 29 games over that span. Add to that an average power play (15th at 19.1 percent) and above-average penalty kill (6th at 85.4 percent) and the picture becomes clearer as to why there’s more to the Flyers than their record suggests. The case gets even stronger, though, when considering Philadelphia’s underlying numbers.
Of the current playoff-bound teams, the Flyers boast the fourth-best shot attempts for percentage, 50.4, since Feb. 1. Only the Capitals (50.7), Lightning (52) and Penguins (55.8) have fared better. Past playoffs in the advanced stats era have shown that a favorable possession rate correlates with post-season success, so the Flyers having only three Eastern teams with better possession rates puts them in a good position.
There’s also the matter of goal scoring. The Flyers haven’t been offensive juggernauts this season, but Philadelphia has shown signs of an offensive spark at 5-on-5 over the past two months. Since Feb. 1, the Flyers’ 59 goals for at 5-on-5 rank second in the entire NHL, and their plus-13 goal differential at 5-on-5 is the fourth-best mark in the league. Sure, captain Claude Giroux is the only Flyer in the top 40 of league scoring, but Brayden Schenn seems to be coming into his own, having scored 13 goals and 28 points in 29 games since the start of February. Only six players have produced more than Schenn over that period.
The biggest area of concern, though, is when it comes to defensive breakdowns. Philadelphia has given up 30 more high-danger scoring chances against than they’ve mustered over the past two months, and it has fallen on goaltender Steve Mason to keep the Flyers in games by making important saves over the past two months. Of the 20 netminders who have seen 750 minutes of action at 5-on-5 since Feb. 1, Mason ranks third with a .935 SP and has a seventh-ranked .850 SP on high-danger shots.
Of course, the current concern is that should the Flyers make the playoffs and fail to move into the top wild-card spot their first-round matchup will be against the Capitals. But while the series might seem like one that favors Washington, Wednesday night’s result should be an indication that the games may be much tighter than the standings would have you believe. And if Philadelphia pulls off a first-round upset, the rest of the Eastern Conference should be on notice, because this Flyers team is better than your run of the mill wild-card club.
(All advanced stats via War-On-Ice)