Starting with the home-and-home series against the Pittsburgh Penguins this weekend and concluding with the April 5 game in Boston against the Bruins, the Flyers face 12 seeded playoff opponents, all of whom have more points than they do in both the Eastern and Western conferences.
The Flyers will face Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, the Rangers, Toronto, and Columbus in that span. They will face Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Boston twice.
In short, the Flyers' chances of making the playoffs will either be greatly enhanced or greatly diminished by the time those games conclude. Talk about a map to success or failure.
“We definitely start this weekend, have to play real good hockey and win hockey games,” coach Craig Berube said. “It’s crunch time against real good teams. I’m just thinking about this weekend. [This schedule] prepares you for the playoffs because it is playoffs almost – it’s intense hockey out there. The game against New Jersey was an intense game, a competitive game. Playing these games against good teams, with everything on the line, will prepare us for the playoffs.”
Given how tight things are now in the Metropolitan Division, it looks like the Flyers will need perhaps 95 points to get into the playoffs.
“I don’t even know what it would take to get into the playoffs,” Wayne Simmonds admitted.
The Flyers have 73 points with 17 games left. If they muster 16 points over these next 12 games, that would give them 89 points and five games left to get another six for 95, which should be enough.
All this sounds easier than it is.
“We need to win a dozen, for sure,” Scott Hartnell said, projecting the Flyers over the final 17 games of the season. “We have to focus on Pittsburgh. We’ve had some dogfights against them the last couple of years. They’ve always played us tough and vice-versa. Every game seems to be 1-1, 2-1 going into the third period. There’s lots of points available to be had. ... Every team we are playing is right at the top of the conference, both East and Western Conference.
“If we’re going to make the playoffs, it’s going to be us flying on a high note.”
Since the midpoint of the season (Game 41), the Flyers have 29 points over their last 25 games. That’s a 1.16 points per game average.
At that pace, the Flyers would finish with 92 points. Ninety-two points, however, may not be enough. If they can just raise their average a tiny bit, they should hit 95 and guarantee themselves a playoff spot.
“You got to beat the best to be the best,” Simmonds said. “We seem to play better when we play teams who are at the top of the conference or doing well. This is going to be a great test and will tell whether we’re going to be in the playoffs or not.”
Berube doesn’t concern himself with standings, points, positioning, etc. In fact, he had the large daily standings board that used to stand outside the players' dressing room removed when he took over as coach.
That board had been there since Ken Hitchcock’s days as a daily reminder to the players where they stood in the standings.
“If they don’t know where they are, that’s a problem,” Berube said.
Re-alignment, the salary cap, player movement and free agency have all left the NHL with far more parity now than when Berube played during the height of his career in the 1990s.
“The parity has kept more teams involved in the run ... right down to the wire,” he said. “They’ve done that. There is parity. You see how close it is. It’s going to go right down to the wire and that’s what they want.”
And the Flyers figure to have a big hand in it.
“We believe we’re a playoff team and we believe we’re a contender,” Hartnell said. “When you have that attitude, the way you practice, the way you focus on games, I don’t think we’ve had any ‘off’ games in a long time. If we continue to work hard, do the right things, play defense, and special teams kicks in with a couple power play goals every game, it’s going to be a good ride here.”