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Meltzer: Keys to a Successful Second Half

Five ways how the Flyers can push themselves into the postseason

by Bill Meltzer @billmeltzer

Exiting a five-night bye week along with several other Metropolitan Division teams, the Flyers are currently two points out of a playoff position with 40 games remaining. A busy second-half slate of games get underway on Saturday, as the Flyers travel to Newark to meet head-to-head with the New Jersey Devils for the first time this season.

As the Flyers return to the ice in Voorhees on Friday to prepare for Saturday's game, here are five keys to success in the second half of the season.

DIVISION GAMES; RECORD ON THE ROAD

The Flyers have already played the New York Islanders three times (out of four scheduled games), the Pittsburgh Penguins twice and the Washington Capitals and Columbus Blue Jackets once apiece. The rest of the team's divisional slate remains on the docket, including four games apiece against the Devils, New York Rangers and Carolina Hurricanes.

Thus, the Flyers are very much in control of their own destiny the rest of this season in what has been a tightly packed Metro Division race and competition for wildcard playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. If the Flyers take care of their own business inside the division, the odds are very strong that Philly will be playing in the postseason. If not, the team will only have itself to blame. 

The Flyers, who posted 53, 54, and 55 points on home ice the past three seasons but stood at a disappointing 4-6-4 (even after starting out 3-1-0) at the Wells Fargo Center in mid-December. The team has made a positive statement since then by going 7-2-0 in the last nine home games. That trend must continue because key opportunities at home were missed in November.

On the road, Philly is 8-7-4 to date. That is an improvement from last season (only two teams in NHL history had ever matched or exceeded 55 points at home and still missed the playoffs, as the Flyers did last year) but still needs further improvement in the second half of this season. Of the Flyers' remaining 40 games, 22 are on the road and 18 are at home.

 

SECONDARY SCORING

Until early December, the Flyers were over-reliant on the top line of Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier and Jakub Voracek to carry the vast majority of the scoring load up front. The decision heading into a western Canada road trip to separate Voracek from the top line in the hopes of finding more balanced scoring - and, thereby, to make the team tougher for opposing coaches to match lines, especially when the Flyers are on the road - was a risky one. However, it has paid off in most of the games that have followed. 

Entering the second half of the season, the Flyers will need more consistent secondary scoring than the team received in the first half. The promotion of 20-year-old Travis Konecny to the Couturier line, while thus far only producing a modest scoring uptick from Konecny, has nevertheless been an effective one in terms of the youngster's game. He's been using his speed very effectively, right in the thick of many scoring chances and getting under opponents' skin. 

Nineteen-year-old rookie Nolan Patrick quietly showed signs of progress in the last couple weeks leading up to the break, although the numbers didn't necessarily reflect it. If at least one of Konecny and/or Patrick can take a bigger offensive bite in the scoring mix in the second half, the Flyers will be a deeper team on the attack.

Among the veterans, the Flyers will likely need another hot offensive run at some point from at least a couple of players among Valtteri Filppula, Michael Raffl or Jordan Weal. It doesn't have to come all at the same time - in fact, it's often better when there's a different offensive hero each night - but the Flyers can't afford lengthy dry spells from these players. Wayne Simmonds tends to score in bunches, particularly on the power play, and it took awhile (after a red hot first week of the season) for him to get back to his normal level of effectiveness after battling through various nagging injuries. 

The Flyers have gotten very solid supplementary offensive contributions overall from defensemen Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov as well as four goals from Brandon Manning. Gostisbehere and Provorov are the keys to generating offense from the back line, but rookie Travis Sanheim (a frequent healthy scratch of late) has a very high offensive upside for the longer-term as he matures.

 

PENALTY KILLING

In mid-November, the Flyers were on a 14-for-15 run on the penalty kill and the season numbers had climbed over 80 percent. Then the bottom dropped out in a home game against Calgary and the Flyers' PK has never fully gotten back on track. Currently, the team sits at a 75.0 percent success ratio on the penalty kill; ranking 28th in the NHL. These numbers need significant improvement over the final 40 games. 

On the bright side, the Flyers have greatly reduced the number of penalties they've taken in recent weeks. That trend needs to continue. The Flyers exit the bye week having allowed the second-fewest five-on-five goals (64) in the NHL this season.

 

THE TANDEM

Brian Elliott enjoyed an outstanding month of December: (13 GP, 8-4-1 record, 2.15 GAA and .927 save percentage) after posting a .920 month in 10 November games despite the team's 10-game winless streak. At one point, Elliott started 16 straight games before Michal Neuvirth started against the Buffalo Sabres in the final game before the bye week. 

Elliott's play thus far in January has not been his best work, but the team has been winning. Now that he is refreshed after the bye week, the Flyers will need him to return to the form he showed in backstopping the club back into playoff spot contention. 

With Neuvirth, the question is never one of talent. It's usually one of an inability to stay healthy. When healthy and on his game, Neuvirth can get as hot as any goalie in the NHL for stretches of a few weeks at a time. 

Before all is said and done this season, the Flyers will still need both goalies to step up. 

 

FIRST PERIOD PLAY

Along with the penalty kill, slow starts in first periods have been a too-frequent issue for the Flyers from recent seasons that carried over into the first half of this season. Even with a surge right before the break - especially a dominant first period against St. Louis - the Flyers still rank in a tie for 28th in the NHL with 28 goals scored in first periods (compared to 54 in the second period and 39 in the third). The team has only taken eight leads to the first intermission, going 6-0-2 in those games.

Understandably, during the stretch in November where the Flyers were having trouble closing out games they led in the third period, that area was a big focus for the club. The issue was mostly corrected, with a few close calls, in the weeks that followed. 

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