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Flyers facing uphill climb in quest to make playoffs

by Arpon Basu

MONTREAL -- The Philadelphia Flyers are making a habit of testing the limits of how difficult it is to gain ground in the NHL standings.

The Flyers are one of the hottest teams in the League, picking up points in seven straight games after a 2-1 overtime loss to the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday gave them a 5-0-2 record since Jan. 20, when they beat the rival Pittsburgh Penguins 3-2 at home.

The morning of that game, the Flyers were 11 points out of a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

On Wednesday morning, not having lost in regulation time since then, the Flyers are eight points behind the Boston Bruins for the second Eastern Conference wild-card spot.

The Flyers gained a point Tuesday on the Bruins, who lost 5-3 at home against the Dallas Stars, but it was the point that slipped away that hurt the most after entering the third period up 1-0 on the Canadiens.

Considering the Flyers gained three points on the Bruins in three weeks, that extra point makes a big difference.

"That second point might hurt in a couple of months," Flyers defenseman Mark Streit said. "I hope not."

For the second season in a row the Flyers got off to a poor start. Last season they were 4-10-1 after 15 games and went 38-20-9 the rest of the way to reach the playoffs, pushing the Stanley Cup-finalist New York Rangers to a seventh game before bowing out in the first round.

This season the Flyers were 8-13-3 after 24 games but have gone 15-9-6 since to keep their slim playoff hopes alive. Having overcome a poor start last season gives the Flyers belief they can do it again, but this is most definitely doing things the hard way.

"We had a really bad start last year, and this year we felt this start was a little bit better," Streit said. "But we were just very inconsistent. We had a few good games, then bad games, just very inconsistent from game to game and within games. We could beat the best team in the League and then we just couldn't keep up the consistency with our play, the way we want to play. We dug ourselves a big hole, and it's tough. We've got to win a lot of hockey games. We have 28 to go, it's a big point [Tuesday], but when you look at it you'd like to have two. At the end of the day, it stings."

It may sting, but there were encouraging signs for the Flyers.

Earlier Tuesday the Flyers announced starting goaltender Steve Mason would be out 2-3 weeks with a lower-body injury. That was hardly the type of news you want to hear in the middle of a late-season push toward the playoffs, especially considering the difficulties backup Ray Emery has had this season.

Emery entered the game against Montreal with a 9-9-1 record, a 3.34 goals-against average and .886 save percentage. But Emery made 39 saves against the Canadiens, withstanding a bombardment over the second half of the game to get his team into overtime and earn the Flyers a point in the standings, one that could have easily been lost were it not for his stellar play.

"Ray's been in this League a long time and he's played in a lot of different situations," Flyers defenseman Andrew MacDonald said. "We count on him a lot. Any time a guy like [Mason] goes down, we're fully confident in Ray stepping in and his ability. He does a lot of great things out there, he communicates well. We're really lucky to have him."

Emery did not take much consolation in his own performance, even though it was far better than most of his starts this season at such a critical time for the Flyers.

"I felt alright tonight, I think you get more comfortable as you play more consistently," Emery said. "You want to win, that's the bottom line. I felt alright, but you'd like to have a win."

The Philadelphia Flyers are making a habit of testing the limits of how difficult it is to gain ground in the NHL standings, as they try to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the second straight year after a poor start. (Photo: Len Redkoles/NHLI)

The Flyers will need wins from here on out. The challenge for them will be to avoid looking at the standings, because it can be a slow climb up to where they need to be.

"You can't really look at the standings, you've got to worry about how you're playing as a team," Flyers forward Matt Read said. "I think we've been playing a lot better in the last 10 games. We haven't lost in regulation in seven [games] now. That point's big, but two's bigger."

Streit said every game is like a playoff game for the Flyers, and that makes for a very trying end to the season. Every point in the standings is precious, and squandered opportunities like Tuesday hurt that much more.

But when the Flyers have played so well of late, it must be difficult not to look back at the start of the season and wonder how things could have been different if they had played this well back then.

"Right now, it doesn't do any good if you look back," Streit said. "You've got to look to the next game and prepare for that. We battled hard tonight, we got a point and we've got to move on. We have a big game in Columbus (on Friday). I think at the end of the season, when everything is said and done, then we have time to analyze everything. But right now, there's no time."

There's no time for analysis, and there's no time for losses, either. The Flyers, as they were a year ago, are facing a stiff climb up the standings, and the calendar is not their friend right now.

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