Go ahead. Take a deep breath and exhale because after a recent, late-season stretch where doubt crept in, the Philadelphia Flyers are heading back to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the 17th time in the last 19 years after they clinched a spot by virtue of their 5-2 win over the Florida Panthers last night in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
With three games left in regular season, two questions remain. Who will the Flyers play in the opening round and will the Flyers have home-ice advantage?
To answer the first question, the Flyers will play either the New York Rangers, Columbus Blue Jackets, Pittsburgh Penguins or Boston Bruins in the first round.
To answer the second question, the Flyers could have home ice over the Rangers or Blue Jackets if they finish second in the Metropolitan Division. The Rangers, who have a two-point lead on the Flyers, currently hold that spot but the Flyers hold the ever-important game in hand. The Penguins and Bruins are the champions of their respective divisions so they would hold home ice and play the wild-card teams.
Remember, when the NHL realigned this past summer, it introduced a new playoff format where the top three teams in each division are guaranteed a playoff spot and the next two teams in the conference, regardless of division, would be wild cards and go to a divisional playoff bracket based upon point totals.
Got all that? Of course you do.
As for those potential opponents and how the Flyers stack up with them…
New York Rangers (93 points, 2nd in Metro, season series tied 2-2)
This is the most likely first-round matchup for the Flyers and has been for a while now. You know what else has been going on for a while now? The Flyers’ losing streak at Madison Square Garden.
The Flyers haven’t won at MSG since Feb. 20, 2011 and have been outscored in those eight games 31-9. That will be the narrative of this series and even more so if the Rangers get the home ice. The other side of the ledger is that the Flyers have won four straight over the Rangers at Wells Fargo Center.
The Rangers, of course, have the ultimate equalizer in goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who is 27-13-3 with a 2.49 goals-against average and .916 save percentage in his career against the Flyers. His career playoff record of 30-37 isn’t great but both his 2.28 career playoff goals-against average and .920 career playoff save percentage are quite stingy.
New York has a top-15 power play but it’s struggled recently with a 5-52 stretch prior to last night’s game. New York’s penalty kill is in the top five and has 10 shorthanded goals on the season. That’s been a boo-boo for Philadelphia, which has given up 11 of those this year, second-most in the league.
Defenseman Ryan McDonagh and forward Chris Kreider are injury questions for the Rangers. McDonagh, their best blueliner, should be back before the playoffs but Kreider, one of their best offensive weapons, is out indefinitely with a broken hand.
But none of this matters unless the Flyers don’t get home ice and can’t win at MSG.
Columbus Blue Jackets (89 points, 4th in Metro/1st wild card, CBJ won season series 3-1)
If you don’t know much about this surging team from Columbus, you should because it dominated Philadelphia in 11 of 12 periods the teams played against each other this season.
The Blue Jackets took the season series from the Flyers and the only game the Flyers won was the that kooky, third-period comeback at Wells Fargo Center in December when Claude Giroux pulled out some magic tricks.
The Jackets outscored the Flyers 17-10 in four meetings this season. But if you take away that third period in December, the Jackets have outscored the Flyers 16-5. Ouch.
Columbus has Sergei Bobrovsky in net and he’s been really good again this season. Last year’s Vezina Trophy winner is 30-20-5 with a 2.42 goals-against average and a.921 save percentage. He was excellent when he shutout the Flyers, 2-0, last week.
If this series happens, you best get acquainted with center Ryan Johansen, who leads the Jackets with 32 goals. The 21-year-old is going to be a problem in the league for a long time.
The Jackets have a top-five power play but a middle of the pack penalty kill that the Flyers could take advantage of.
Columbus is a young, dangerous team out to prove something. And it could be at the Flyers’ expense if the way the season series went tells us anything.
Pittsburgh Penguins (105 points, 1st in Metro, PHI leads season series 3-1)
For this to happen, Columbus would have to leapfrog Philadelphia into the second or third spot in the Metro, leaving Philadelphia as the first wild-card team.
But, ah, Pittsburgh. We’ve been here before, haven’t we?
Don’t kill the messenger, but this wouldn’t be the worst first-round match up for the Flyers.
Throw away the stats here. These are two teams that obviously don’t like one another and that’s turned out to be a great thing for the Flyers in the past. They aren’t afraid of the Penguins like some teams might be and force the Penguins to unsuccessfully play outside their shell.
The Flyers lead the season series 3-1 with another game coming up on Saturday in Pittsburgh. The only loss to the Penguins this season was in October when the Flyers barely knew how to actually play hockey. Since then, it’s been all Flyers, as they’ve outscored the Penguins 10-4 in those three games. Sure, the Pens were without injured stars in those games, but they’ve been without those guys for most of the season and it hasn’t messed with their results.
Plus, including playoffs, the Flyers have lost just twice at CONSOL Energy Center since it opened in October 2010 and Marc-Andre Fleury has done his best Hindenburg impression in net the past few playoff seasons so the last things he wants to see are orange and black sweaters come playoff time.
What would the victor have left after an assuredly vicious series?
Boston Bruins (114 points, 1st in Atlantic, BOS won season series 3-0)
For this to happen, the Flyers would have to fall down into the last wild-card spot.
Of the teams you don’t want to see, the Bruins are the team you most don’t want to see.
They are an unstoppable force and a well-oiled machine that owned the Flyers this season by outscoring them 15-6 in three games. The only contest the Flyers even had stood a real chance in was the thriller on March 31 that the Bruins eventually won in a shootout.
Tuukka Rask is the frontrunner for this year’s Vezina Trophy as he sports a 2.06 goals-against average and a .928 save percentage alongside a 35-15-6 record. He’s kinda good.
Boston also has the most points in the NHL, a top-3 power play and top-10 penalty kill despite injuries that have torn up their defensive corps. That’s impressive.
The Bruins have everything. They have a dominant goalie, deep defense and explosive scorers. They are the frontrunners not just in the East, but also for the Stanley Cup. Mercy on whichever team gets them first.
And that’s why these last three regular season games are incredibly important for the Flyers. They Flyers do not want to fall into one of those wild-card spots and get stuck with the Bruins or Penguins, no matter how well they match up with the latter team because they want the home ice.
The Tampa Bay Lightning, Thursday’s opponent, are the only team of the three remaining on the Flyers’ schedule that has something to play for. The Lightning is locked into a first-round matchup with the Montreal Canadiens but is battling for home ice, much like the Flyers. The Penguins are the Metropolitan Division champions and the second-overall seed in the Eastern Conference so they can’t move up or down the standings. And the Carolina Hurricanes packed it in a long time ago.
The Rangers have two games remaining, one each with the Buffalo Sabres and Canadiens. If the Rangers split those games and the Flyers get five of six possible points down the stretch, the Flyers would be second in the Metro.
The hard work is done. The Flyers are in. Once you’re in, it’s a total crapshoot. Anything can happen. But that home ice in the first round would make it a tad bit easier.
So would actually winning at Madison Square Garden.