It’s no secret around town and, more importantly, around the NHL how well the Flyers have been playing in recent weeks. As a matter of fact, to say they are playing well could be an understatement.
Since March 1, the Flyers have posted an impressive 8-2-1 record and have been the hottest team in the league this side of the Boston Bruins, who just had a 12-game winning streak snapped this past Monday.
You don’t have to look back too far to notice the Flyers have won five of their last six games, all against some of the NHL’s best in the Pittsburgh Penguins (twice), Chicago Blackhawks, Dallas Stars and St. Louis Blues. The only blemish in that stretch was this past Monday’s hard-fought, 3-2 loss to the Los Angeles Kings that the Flyers should feel no shame about.
Their torrid run throughout this month has put the Flyers in prime playoff positioning in the Metropolitan Division and given them some cushion in the Eastern Conference wild-card race in case they do fall off a bit down the stretch.
But crumple all those joyful, good feelings about the hometown team into one big paper ball and throw it in the trashcan because the Flyers’ game tonight in Manhattan against the New York Rangers is a must-win game.
Say what? A must-win for a team that comes in on that kind of a roll?
Yep. You read that right.
Not only is it a must-win, it very well may be the Flyers’ biggest game of the season.
If the season ended before Wednesday night’s games, the Flyers and Rangers would meet in the first round of the playoffs with the Rangers having home ice since they currently have a one-point advantage over the Flyers for second place in the Metropolitan.
As the season winds down, the odds of a first-round matchup between the two longtime rivals grows increasingly likely by the day. Don’t discount the upstart Columbus Blue Jackets or the desperate Washington Capitals, both of whom sit three points behind the Flyers in the Metropolitan, from throwing a wrench into those plans, but a Flyers-Rangers opening-round series looks like a distinct possibility.
The teams haven’t met in the Stanley Cup Playoffs since the 1997 Eastern Conference Final, which the Flyers won four games to one.
It sounds like an enticing matchup until you realize the Flyers have lost seven straight games at Madison Square Garden and haven’t won there since Feb. 20, 2011. For those not well-inclined in the field of mathematics, that’s a stretch of over three years.
To make things worse, many of the games haven’t been close. The Flyers have been outscored 28-8 during their seven-game losing streak at the World’s Most Famous Arena and only one of those games was decided by less than two goals.
Tonight’s game in The Garden is must-win for the Flyers’ psyche. They don’t want to go into a playoff series knowing they haven’t won in the opponent’s building in over three years, especially a hated rival’s building.
The Stanley Cup Playoffs are tough enough. The last thing the Flyers will need is a mental obstacle to hurdle and something to have to constantly answer questions about.
Tonight’s game is one the Flyers need to get under their collective belt and get out of the way now. If for nothing else, they need it to erase any lingering doubts they may have about winning in New York.
As for something a bit more tangible, this is a huge game in the race for home-ice advantage.
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As mentioned above, the Rangers would currently have the home ice but they only lead the Flyers by a point in the standings. The Flyers obviously want that home-ice advantage in the playoffs so what better way to get it than to snatch it with a win against the team directly ahead of them?
A regulation win tonight would put the Flyers one point ahead of the Rangers with two games in hand. That would be one point ahead and two extra games to lock up that home-ice advantage for the first round.
So, needless to say, tonight’s game may very well be the biggest of the season for the Flyers.
They’ll catch a bit of a break as winger Chris Krieder, who is tied for third on the Rangers with 17 goals and plays on their top line with fellow winger Rick Nash and center Derek Stepan, will miss the game with a hand injury.
Known Flyers tormentor Henrik Lundqvist will start between the pipes for the Rangers. In 44 career games against the Flyers, Lundqvist has a 26-13-3 record along with a 2.53 goals-against average and a .915 save percentage. But the Flyers did get four past him in a 4-2 win when the teams last met on March 1 in South Philly.
After getting the night off this past Monday, Steve Mason returns to the net tonight for the Flyers. No surprise there with what is riding on this game.
Philadelphia holds a 2-1 lead in the season series but, as you may have been able to decipher earlier in this article, both wins came at Wells Fargo Center.
That’s cool and all but now’s the time for the Flyers to get that MSG monkey off their backs, especially since some more important visits to The Garden could be looming on the horizon.