WASHINGTON -- The Philadelphia Flyers said they have believed since the start of the season that they're good enough to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
That belief has evolved into something bigger.
First place in the Metropolitan Division is within the Flyers' grasp after a 5-2 win against the Washington Capitals at Capital One Arena on Wednesday. Their season-high seven-game winning streak has them within one point of the Capitals for first place in the division, a goal that has become more realistic in recent weeks.
"It wasn't earlier on," said goalie Brian Elliott, who made 25 saves against the Capitals. "I think it was just try to get that 'x' by your name and make sure you're in a good spot for the playoffs, but I think now guys are starting to believe that we're a really good team and if we can play like we want to on a nightly basis, we'll put ourselves in a good spot."
With 16 regular-season games remaining, the Flyers are already in a good spot. They have some work left to clinch a playoff berth after failing to qualify last season, but they've given themselves reason to believe they can win the Metropolitan.
Philadelphia (39-20-7) proved again Wednesday it matches well against Washington (40-20-6), which has won the division each of the past four seasons. The Flyers went 3-0-1 against the Capitals in 2019-20 to win the season series.
In fact, including a 7-2 victory here on Feb. 8, the Flyers have outscored the Capitals 12-4 in the past two games between the rivals.
"They've been some hard-fought games here," Philadelphia coach Alain Vigneault said. "These are games for men and guys are battling hard on both sides; not a lot of friendship going on on the ice. We played hard against them and we were able to come out on the right side.
"At the end of the day, when you look at it, we haven't done anything yet."
But the Flyers are playing their best hockey with the playoffs approaching, which is not something other division rivals can say at the moment. The Capitals, who are 6-9-1 in their past 16 games, certainly can't. Neither can the Pittsburgh Penguins, who are in third place, three points behind the Flyers. The Penguins lost six in a row before their 7-3 win against the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday.
Knowing the opportunity in front of them, Vigneault talked before the game Wednesday about its importance. The Flyers pounced.
"Our boys came to play," Vigneault said. "It showed a lot about the will and the character of this group here. Obviously we haven't accomplished anything yet, but tonight was a big game for both teams. Both teams were ready."
After falling behind 1-0 on Lars Eller's goal with 5:51 left in the first period and losing forward James van Riemsdyk to a broken right hand, Philadelphia seized control by scoring three consecutive goals in the second (Travis Konecny, Kevin Hayes and Tyler Pitlick) and took a 3-1 lead.
Video: PHI@WSH: Hayes cleans up in front to give Flyers lead
The Capitals made it 3-2 when Garnet Hathaway scored with 1:28 left in the second period, but the Flyers pulled away in the third with goals from Ivan Provorov and Scott Laughton.
"We're playing some good hockey," Hayes said. "Everyone's buying into the system and we're putting together good 60-minute efforts. Even when things aren't going our way, we stick together and our leadership leads the way."
That hasn't been the case all season. After bouncing in and out of wild-card position in the Eastern Conference for much of the first four months, Philadelphia is 16-4-1 in its past 21 games and making a run at a division title for the first time since 2010-11.
The Flyers may have to push forward without van Riemsdyk. Vigneault said he should find out Thursday how long the power forward will be out. Forward Joel Farabee will be recalled from Lehigh Valley of the American Hockey League.
"You start the year and you just want to get in, see where you're at and make sure you get in. That's where we were for the majority of the year and now that we've had some success, you kind of reassess where you're at," said Philadelphia defenseman Matt Niskanen, who helped Washington win the Stanley Cup in 2018. "I think the goal for us now is to push and try to chase these guys down or try to beat out Pittsburgh and maybe get home ice in the first round.
"We haven't made it yet. It's good to keep that in the back of your mind, I think. But it's a goal."
Video: PHI@WSH: Provorov blasts puck home to extend lead
The next test will come against the Carolina Hurricanes at Wells Fargo Center on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, NBCSP, NHL.TV). A win, combined with a Capitals regulation loss to the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; MSG, NBCSWA, NHL.TV), would push the Flyers into first place for the first time this season.
"We're climbing," Hayes said. "That's our main goal is to keep climbing up the standings, and that's what we're doing."