With the Olympics finally over, the NHL season resumes Thursday night when the Flyers take on the San Jose Sharks, the first of 23 games in a frantic 46-day race to the finish line.
They’re hoping to shake off the rust and pick up where they left off in the midst of a four-game winning streak.
Here are some key games to keep an eye on as the season winds towards its conclusion.
March 1, Rangers
The Flyers have always had a hard time beating Henrik Lundqvuist & Co. Under the revised playoff system, they’d better learn to do it soon, since there’s a decent chance they could be first round opponents. Considering the Flyers haven’t won at the Garden in their last seven visits, finishing ahead of them in the standings and securing home ice might be a good idea.
March 2 and 5, Capitals
Another home-and-home with Alex Ovechkin’s gang, in D.C. Sunday and here Wednesday. At one point Washington had a nine-point lead on the Flyers in the standings. Now they trail by three points, meaning they’ll be even more desperate than Craig Berube’s team.
March 15, 16, Penguins
Gold medalists Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz come to town for the first of a weekend home-and-home set, which continues the next night in Pittsburgh. Ironically recent history shows home ice to be a disadvantage between the two. The Pens are 3-0 in Philly since their 2012 playoff flameout.
March 22, Blues
Who ever heard of T.J. Oshie, Kevin Shatterkirk and David Backus until a few weeks ago? Well, they’ll all be here — along with familiar face Ken Hitchcock, who happens to be their coach — for this Saturday matinee. The team that used to the original Flyers fiercest rivals — spawning the age of the Broad St. Bullies — has become hockey’s version of America’s Team.
March 24, Kings
Believe it or not this will be Mike Richards and Jeff Carter’s first game at their old stomping ground since they won the Stanley Cup, which will lead to an interesting fan reaction. Of greater importance, though, will likely be the performance of the rest of his teammates, particularly goalie Jonathan Quick, who faced only 13 shots in the Flyers 2-0 win Feb. 1. The Kings, who went 2-8 into the break, need to pull it together to have any chance in the West.
March 30, Bruins
It will be interesting to see how the post-Olympic Flyers stack up with the Bruins. Since being humbled 6-1 on Jan 25 where their fans booed them off the ice, Philadelphia has responded by going 5-1 into the break. If they can hang with a team that’s gone to the Cup Finals two of the last three years, it would be significantly boost their post-season hopes.
April 3, Blue Jackets
Here’s another potential playoff opponent with a storyline too juicy to pass up. The goalies — Steve Mason and Sergei Bobrovsky — will be facing their old teams. So will Flyer Jake Voracek and Columbus’ R.J. Umberger. It’s not a stretch to foresee this soon becoming Philadelphia hottest new rivalry.
April 10, at Lightning
Vinny Lecavalier’s old club has done a remarkable job staying afloat without top gun Steven Stamkos. But the Flyers have pulled within five points of them heading into the break as No. 3 seed in the East, while a half dozen others are bearing down. With the season winding down this could be a key game determining who finishes where.
April 13, Hurricanes
The regular season wraps with Carolina, who happened to be stuck here an extra day during the big January storm. The ‘Canes won that rescheduled game to go with the two they won earlier on home ice, so they figure to be confident in a game that may mean nothing — or everything.
So how will this all play out?
With all those home games — even against most of the NHL’s best — it’s unlikely the Flyers will trip over their own skates and slide out of the playoffs. Between Giroux, Voracek, Simmonds, Hartnell, Lecavalier, Brayden Schenn and Matt Reid there are too many just scoring threats to believe they’re all misfire the way they did at the start of the season.
As for the defense, watching Olympians like Shea Weber, Drew Doughty and Eric Karlsson dominate it’s clear what the Flyers are missing — and have missed some they lost Chris Pronger, Their blueliners have their moments but are subject to turnovers and often have a hard time clearing the puck out of their zone. Fortunately, Steve Mason — and occasionally Ray Emery — have repeatedly bailed them out.
The bottom line, then, is unless the goaltenders suddenly lose it the Flyers should win enough games to claim either second or third in the Metropolitan — the difference between that meaning home ice in the first round. Unless upstart Columbus maintains the pace it had going into the break it looks like we’re heading towards an Amtrak first round series.
In other words, one way or another the Flyers seem destined to face the same problem Team Canada did in the Gold Medal game vs. Sweden: They’ll have to beat King Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers to advance.