When the weather starts to get warm, excitement starts to build in most NHL locker rooms. That’s because warm weather generally means the playoffs are coming. For the Flyers, the playoffs aren’t a lock yet by any means – they remain three points behind the Pittsburgh Penguins for the final wild card spot in the East. The other wild card spot and a Metropolitan Division automatic berth are each three points beyond that.
But as the team returned to the ice yesterday after having a sunny, 60-degree Tuesday off, there was a noticeable confidence in the locker room. Nobody would profess to Pittsburgh’s loss to Washington on Tuesday night being a part of that, but you can bet the players were aware that the Penguins had used up their game-in-hand on the Flyers without picking up any points. It’s no secret that several of the teams chasing the Flyers in the East gave up top forwards at the trade deadline, while GM Ron Hextall kept his team intact.
In reality, the Flyers currently are in control of their own destiny. With 20 games to play, they are within striking distance of either of those wild card spots or could even make it into the third divisional slot. What’s working in their favor is they have three games against the Penguins yet to play – including one on the final weekend of the season. They are there because they’ve swept their way through the first half of a homestand where they felt they needed 10 and possibly all 12 available points to become contenders in the race.
“You realize what the other teams are doing and what the scores are, but for the most part you just have to worry about yourself and just about the next game, and that’s tomorrow against Edmonton,” said defenseman Mark Streit. “It’s another huge game like any other. I think we have a good feeling in the room. We’re playing with a lot of confidence and going in the right direction.”
And although the Flyers are extremely focused on taking care of their own business and playing their own game, and doing so one game at a time, they no doubt gain some momentum from their winning streak opening up some breathing room between them and the teams behind them in the tight Eastern Conference standings. There’s a marked difference in a team’s demeanor when it’s one that’s trying to continue a surge towards a playoff spot, versus a team that’s playing for survival and trying to stay with the pack.
“When our emotional energy’s high, we’re a pretty successful team,” said center Sam Gagner. “That’s why those rivalry games and those games against those top teams, we seem to rise to the occasion. At this point in the season with where we are in the standings and who we’re chasing, I don’t think it’s going to be very hard for us to ramp up our emotions and get fired up for games. Every game is very important for us, and tomorrow’s another big one.”
GROWING AS A TEAM
If this Flyers season does end in a return to the playoffs and they look back at this homestand as being a catalyst that got them there, there are a couple points that might stand out. One would be Michal Neuvirth’s legendary save against Minnesota in the final seconds. Another could be a point in the Calgary game that, while less noticeable, could be just as important.
The Flyers were in control, up 4-1, when suddenly things started to unravel a few minutes into the third period. Calgary started gaining momentum, and next thing anybody knew, they’d scored two goals 40 seconds apart and it was 4-3 with almost nine minutes left to play.
It wasn’t all the Flyers’ fault. Flames winger Johnny Gaudreau, putting on a show for the thousands of friends and family from South Jersey in attendance, was going through the Flyers like a sewing machine through fabric. His hands and playmaking ability were on full display and would be tough for any team to stop. But at the same time, the Flyers had notably let off the gas a little bit.
After the second of the two Calgary goals, Dave Hakstol called timeout. He had some words for his team, but he credited the leadership group of captain Claude Giroux and the other veterans for taking control and snapping the team out of its funk.
“The other night we weren’t really good for an eight-to-10 minute period,” Hakstol said Wednesday. “We gave up a couple of goals. But those guys settled us down and we got playing again, and we were fine. That comes from the mentality of our leaders, our captains – guys like Mark Streit, Nick Schultz, and others in this room.”
In the end it was a win, but afterwards, the players were clear to one another that the sort of thing that just happened couldn’t happen again.
“We finished the game really solid and got the two points, and that’s all that matters,” Streit said. “I think everybody realized in the locker room that we need to change for tomorrow.”
The significance of the moment was that the Flyers not only picked up a lesson, but showed they can walk the walk. After a handful of games this year that they let get away from them late – and almost having it happen again two games in a row – the Flyers showed they can correct the problem on the fly.
“Especially earlier in the year, 6-on-5s we were getting scored on a lot late in the game,” said center Sean Couturier. “We lost a few points because of that, but I think we’ve learned how to shut games down. Yesterday’s another example of learning and now it’s just being better next time.”