Less than three weeks from now the NHL season grinds to a halt. And this time it has nothing to do with a lockout, like the one last year that hijacked nearly half the season and turned the usual 82-game marathon into a 48-game sprint.
When the rest of the world turns its eyes on Sochi and the Olympics, they’ll see the best of the best of the NHL, minus the Flyers’ Claude Giroux, there, too. During those three weeks some teams will get plenty of rest, while others will cross their fingers hoping nobody from their team gets hurt when squads like Slovakia and Sweden go head-to-head.
Once they return from Russia it will be another wild race to the finish, where a slow start similar to the Flyers’ 1-7 stumble out of the gate that cost Peter Laviolette his job, could spell doom. All this which puts a premium of finishing up the pre-Olympic portion of the schedule strong.
Following yesterday’s 4-3 shootout loss on Long Island in which they blew a 3-1 lead in the last 12 minutes to complete a home-and-home series, the Flyers stand 25-19-6, placing them third in the Metropolitan and sixth in the East pending Toronto’s late game. In the process they’ve already matched a franchise record, coming back to win nine games in which they trailed in the third period. Even after letting this one get away they’re still 9-3-2 since December 21.
They now head into the break with nine games in the next 18 days, five at home, beginning here tonight with Carolina, one of many teams chasing them in the sardine-tight packed Conference standings.
The 20-19-9 ‘Canes have slipped to 13th, yet trail 8th place Columbus by just three points. Speaking of the Blue Jackets, who’ve won six in a row to move into the final playoff spot for the moment, they’re next on the Flyers agenda. That means Sergei Bobrovsky is likely to go against his old club for the first time. Thursday.
Among Philadelphia’s remaining eight games after tonight, including a potentially brutal quickie California trip next week to Anaheim, L.A. and San Jose, six are against teams currently locked into playoff spots. Besides those three on the Coast, Craig Berube’s gang faces the Atlantic Division leading Bruins, Detroit and Colorado here, before wrapping it up against Calgary Feb. 8.
When they resume back here Feb. 27 against the San Jose Sharks, they’ll have 23 games over the final 46 days, 14 of them on home ice. But during that span consider the teams that will be coming to town: the reigning champion Blackhawks, Kings (featuring the long awaited return of Mike Richards and Jeff Carter), Blues, Bruins along with their top five Division rivals, the Penguins, Rangers, Devils, Caps and Blue Jackets.
If they Flyers can survive that ordeal, with 11 of the first 15 games at home after the break, they should be in good position to wrap up a playoff spot. If they do really well and make it into the top four, they even have a shot at earning coveted home ice advantage in the first round.
Then again, presuming it remains as tight as it’s been all season, any kind of prolonged slump could send them careening right out of the post-season.
Ironically, the same Hurricanes the Flyers entertain tonight will be the team they host in the April 14 season’s finale. Staying on the kind of roll they’ve been on leading into the break will go a long ways towards making life easier when the troops come home from Sochi.
Otherwise, things may get a little more nerve wracking than they’d like.