The Flyers reward for playing their most relentless game of the season 10 days ago to beat the Lightning was the opportunity to play an even bigger one four nights later in Tampa.
They surprised a lot of us by winning that second game against Tampa as well, setting up a big game in Sunrise where the Flyers needed at least one point or else a victory over Detroit Tuesday night at the Wells Fargo Center couldn’t get the Flyers just one win away from a playoff position.
So the latest biggest win of the year Wednesday night in Chicago, against the defending Stanley Cup champions, will remain that biggest win of the year only until the Penguins come to the Wells Fargo Center Saturday. That’s the way it goes when for most of the season you have been going uphill, when, with 13 contests to go, you don’t dare pause to look back and admire how far you have come.
As Bobby Clarke has always said about his overtime goal in 1974 at Boston, the one that broke a 6-year Flyer drought there, tied the Stanley Cup finals, 1-1, and shifted home ice advantage to the underdogs: “It was the biggest goal I ever scored, but if we don’t win the series, it’s just another goal.”
This victory at the United Center has become a statement game for this 8-1-1 run and this 14-5-4 surge. A game that has put them in the driver’s seat for a playoff position, as well as the latest exhibit A of their new-found strong mindedness.
After holding on to win an almost “must-game" Tuesday against the team that held the spot the Flyers want, after landing in the wee hours, Dave Hakstol’s team didn’t suffer the sleepy first periods that it so often did for the first three months of the season. Against a rested, tested, club not very happy with itself after three straight losses, the Flyers didn’t run out of gas at the end.
Unlike a year ago, when the Flyers had crawled back into the race going into what really became a one-game season that afternoon in Boston, they didn’t take an unnecessary penalty in the last two minutes and have their hearts irreparably broken with 15 seconds to play.
This time the Flyers had a champion almost totally clogged up in the neutral zone for most of the third period. When, inevitably, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith started coming, Philadelphia got the clutch Michal Neuvirth save on the breakaway by Marian Hossa, didn’t go to the box down the stretch, and didn’t give up the last minute goal that had become this team’s MO through January.
Holding off a club that has six guys out there to your five is a lot about the bounces, but it also becomes a statement about belief and will power. With courage and conviction, the Flyers stared down a really strong opponent. In the end, the tired team only looked tired of letting crucial points get away.
It is of little concern whether Neuvirth or Steve Mason is in goal. The Flyers play with trust in both of them. It doesn’t matter that Jake Voracek, the team’s second-best forward, has been out for nine games because this is the Brayden Schenn that Paul Holmgren believed the Flyers would eventually have when he traded Mike Richards five years ago.
It doesn’t matter right now that the Flyers’ big, minute-eating, cornerstone defenseman – or defensemen – is/are still playing in junior. Mark Streit and Andrew MacDonald have made big comebacks and the support from the forwards is helping everybody back there to make good choices. How good have Michael Raffl and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare been in these last few games? Good enough to make the Flyers deep enough to match up with any team at forward in the playoffs, provided they get in.
As they continue to try, the Flyers have taken the wonder out of their next game, the next period. There are four long weeks to go, time for Detroit to get hot, too, or the Penguins to get some bounces on Saturday and open up what could be a six-point lead.
Nevertheless, you don’t have to be curious about how the Flyers will play on Saturday. Because on Wednesday night in Chicago, in the biggest game of the year until the next one, they showed us that never mind the score or the circumstances we can now count on them to compete.