Broken and fragile as recently as 10 days ago after a 6-1 loss to the Bruins, the Flyers are flying again. They boarded their flight in San Jose yesterday morning brimming with the confidence of being the only team in 11 tries this season to win twice in regulation against California's triangle of death.
"I thought all three games, the guys showed up and did a good job," coach Craig Berube said. "I think it boiled down to being competitive. When you come out West against these three big teams, if you don't skate and you're not competitive, you're probably going to lose."
Berube said the Flyers' lone loss on the trip, last Thursday in Anaheim, may have been the Flyers' second-best game of the season. They allowed two first-period goals on deflections and still had a power-play chance to tie the game in the final minutes, outplaying the NHL's No. 1 overall team for large stretches.
In Los Angeles, the Flyers grinded out a grimy win with the fewest shots on goal (13) in franchise history. They held the Sharks, the NHL's leading shot producer, to 40 percent below their season average (22) and just eight even-strength darts through two periods.
The setup, the furious skating, never changed whether the Flyers were leading or trailing. It wasn't all fancy, Berube said, but "it's just hard work."
"Personally, that game in LA was the most boring game I've played in a long time," Jake Voracek said. "We could have dropped a couple points in LA. We didn't. We lost the first game of the trip and we stuck with our plan.
"It's not easy to fly 6 hours here, with a 3-hour time change and play three games in 5 days. I think we played very well defensively and offensively. We didn't make very many mistakes in games."
Sharks coach Todd McLellan said his team was "outworked" and "outnumbered" all over the ice, that the Flyers were "just the better team."
But where does this leave the Flyers now, 70 percent of the way through this 82-game slog? Right now: out of a playoff spot.
Entering last night's action, the Flyers were tied with Columbus and Detroit for both the third and final playoff position in the Metropolitan Division and the last wild-card entry. Both teams had a game in-hand.
They were one point behind the Rangers for second in the Metropolitan and two points behind Montreal for the top wild-card spot. So, the Flyers are within two points of four different playoff seeds.
"We played great hockey all three games," Matt Read said. "We learned how to play defensively and that's how you win hockey games. Now we just need to go home and take care of business."
Can the Flyers be considered one of the NHL's elite? Their overall record may decide they are mediocre, but their 27-16-6 record since the 1-7-0 start is not far off from a seasonlong pace that would have them nearer the top.
One thing is for sure: No team in the East - especially the Penguins, with their postseason history against them - would be salivating to play the Flyers in the first round of the playoffs. But the Flyers have to get in first.
Consistency is what is keeping the Flyers grounded. Their energy level and tempo vary not from game to game but opponent to opponent. They seem to play their best when up against the best.
For this team, that is both a blessing and a curse.
It's a blessing because they will close with one of the toughest schedules in the East. They still have to face nine of the top 10 teams in the league at least once - and 18 of their remaining 25 games are against playoff teams. Their 18 opponents have a combined record of 522-342-126, making their average opponent for the rest of the season a robust 29-19-7.
It's a curse because, well, the Flyers tend to take games off - particularly against the Buffalos, Floridas and Calgarys of the world. And they can't afford to do that.
Until that is fixed, the Flyers will remain in this jumbled Metro mess - and possibly even have another long summer, which would have wide-ranging implications for everyone.
But if they can somehow, someway squeeze their way in, look out. This group has a confidence, particularly in third periods, that can't be bought or taught. And that could make for one salacious spring in our playoff-starved town.
"Any time you can come out and go toe to toe, and even outplay some of the best teams, it's definitely a good feeling," Steve Mason said. "Moving forward, we know that we shouldn't be scared of anybody."
.929: Steve Mason’s save percentage in the Flyers’ three games in California, to go along with a 2.02 goals- against average.
64: Third-period goals for the Flyers this season, tied with Chicago for second most in the NHL. Only Boston (66) has more.
30: Points for Claude Giroux in 24 games since Dec. 17.
27: Turnovers forced by the Flyers on Monday night in San Jose, a season-high, which was partly a product of active sticks in the defensive zone by forwards. Their previous best was 20 against Ottawa on Nov. 12.
25 percent: Success rate for the Flyers’ power play in the last 16 games, which has scored a goal in 13 of those games (14-for-56).
THE WEEK AHEAD
Tomorrow, 7 o'clock
The Avalanche are back to being the hottest team in the Western Conference, with four straight wins entering last night and nine in their last 11 games. They crossed the Hudson River last night to Madison Square Garden after a late comeback win against the Devils on Monday. Tomorrow will be their third game in 4 days. Colorado knocked off the Flyers, 2-1, in Denver on Jan. 2.
Saturday, 1 o'clock
Anything less than two points against the visiting Flames, who will be dreaming of the Olympics to break up their brutal season, will be unacceptable. Calgary entered last night’s game in Montreal with the league's third-worst road record (9-13-4). They were 5-3-1 of late thanks to captain Mark Giordano's nine-game point streak (4 goals, 6 assists) from the blue line. Rookie Sean Monahan (15) leads the Flames in goals. With goalie Kari Ramo (knee) out until after the break, Reto Berra figures to get much of the action in net.
Sunday - Feb. 24
Immediately after Saturday afternoon’s game, the Flyers will begin the 16-day Olympic break, which also includes a roster-freeze period. No mandatory practices or training sessions are allowed to be held until Feb. 19, but the Flyers provided their non-Olympians with a workout regimen to follow on their own. “It’s up to them,’’ Craig Berube said. “It’s their time off and we can only guide them so far.’’
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