Flyers mapping out the final stretch

Posted: March 07, 2014

THREE-POINT lead, 19 games to go, and nothing is assured for the Flyers - but you already knew that. The trade deadline came and went, and defenseman Andrew MacDonald came and defenseman Andrej Meszaros went, and now the focus is on the finish of the regular season - and beyond.

If the Flyers get into the playoffs, they will arrive as one of the better teams in the NHL since Nov. 1, and as an interesting group of survivors - of the firing of a coach, and a dreadful start, and the assimilation of a new system under Craig Berube. They play in a conference where the top team is flawed on defense and uncertain-ish in goal, and where most everybody else is jammed into the same station wagon. If they get in, they will be overlooked on the one hand and have a significant opportunity on the other.

On a night when the Flyers had a 4-0 lead over the Washington Capitals and then saw it close to 4-3, then 5-3, then 5-4, and then finally 6-4, the evidence continues to mount: The East is that wide open.

"I view the whole NHL that way, to be honest with you . . . over the years," Berube was saying. "Last year was different - you had two top teams in there, the Presidents' Trophy winner [Chicago, along with Boston in the Stanley Cup Final]. But if you look before that, LA just gets in and they win the Cup. It's always kind of been like that for the last little while.

"I think the way the league is set up now, and [with] the salary cap, all of these teams are very competitive. Some teams don't get off to a good start at the beginning of the year but they push at the end of the year and they get on a roll. Like I said before, you get in the playoffs and anything can happen."

If you were going to draw up a road map of a long run in the playoffs, there would be three necessary mileposts along the way.

The first would be goaltending. If Steve Mason continues to play at his current level, this should not be an issue. Big "if," clearly, but you go with what you see - and Mason has been good enough. For instance, none of the goals against the Caps was his fault.

The second would be balanced scoring. Led by Claude Giroux, who has recovered from a summer injury and an awful start to become one of the hottest players in the NHL, the Flyers have seven players with at least 14 goals. If you believe that secondary scoring is vital for successful playoff teams, the Flyers' roster has that kind of a profile.

Third is the shutdown defenseman. This is the Flyers' question. Chris Pronger is retired except as far as the salary cap is concerned, Shea Weber is still in Nashville, and the Flyers do not have a dominator on their back line. It isn't for lack of trying, but it is their current reality. And so, just as they are balanced up front, they are attempting to win with balance in the back. It is what the MacDonald acquisition was about.

Meszaros could be a dynamic player, but you never knew when he was going to turn it on. Once a week, he would show you stuff that justified all of the good things everybody ever thought about him. The problem was, the Flyers play three times a week, not once - and in those other two games, Meszaros' play was occasionally mystifying.

MacDonald was acquired for those other two games. There is some speed and some offense in his game, but there also is shot-blocking and stability. And if you don't have the guy who can play 27 minutes a night, night after playoff night, you need that stability from five or six defensemen if you are going to have a chance.

It is a familiar April and May lament in the NHL: "If we hadn't been a defenseman short . . . " So when you can make a move at the deadline that adds somebody of MacDonald's caliber - again, this isn't to overstate his abilities - it is, well . . .

"It's huge," Berube said. "We've got lots of good defensemen here and we've got depth here. That's important."

It is their road map this season and the Flyers are sticking to it. Really, they have no choice.


On Twitter: @theidlerich

Blog: philly.com/DNL

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