Flyers' homestretch is no easy stretch

Posted: April 02, 2014

ST. LOUIS - After their 1-7 start to the season, the Flyers' road to the precipice of the Stanley Cup playoffs has been so long, so bumpy that tonight's Game 75 might feel like Game 750.

They have been through hell and back.

Yet, as tough as the Flyers' schedule has been in recent weeks - Blues, Blackhawks, Stars, Penguins (twice) and Bruins - they still have the second-toughest remaining schedule (.567 points percentage) of any East team within sniffing distance of a playoff spot.

You were one of four teams to earn a point against the Bruins in March? That's nice. Your next game is against the NHL-leading Blues at Scottrade Center, where St. Louis has enjoyed the best home record in the league.

That doesn't seem to bother the Flyers. Claude Giroux said this run to the playoffs - a chance to beat the best to earn a right to compete for the best trophy in sports - has made his team better. Giroux said the Flyers learned firsthand what has made this ridiculous run of opponents so successful.

When asked whether the Flyers can now consider themselves on par with the best in the NHL, coach Craig Berube responded, "We're getting closer."

"I think they've risen to it," Berube said. "I think we've shown that we're getting to a pretty good level here, but we've got to continue to get better. I honestly believe that we can get better than what we're playing."

While it's a 98.3 percent probability, the Flyers are seven or eight points away from a clinching scenario, for as strong as they have played. There is still a lot of meat left on the bone - 10 percent of the season (eight games) - over the final 13 days of the season.

"Nothing's guaranteed," Berube said. "We need wins. Every game's huge. We can't take anything for granted."

If this season's Maple Leafs aren't enough to scare the Flyers straight, perhaps a history lesson would. In 2010-11, the Flyers were in the Presidents' Trophy race for top record in the league when they clinched a playoff berth on March 19, 2011. Ville Leino scored the winner in a shootout against the Stars that night.

They then went and lost eight of their final 11 games - including a few stinkers against non-playoff teams such as Atlanta and Ottawa - before going to the brink against Buffalo in the first round. Remember that? Sergei Bobrovsky, Brian Boucher and Michael Leighton in one playoff series. Then, poof! The Flyers vanished in a second-round sweep by Boston.

There is plenty of peril ahead, with the NHL-worst Sabres, a trip to Florida and the lame-duck Hurricanes on the last day of the season. After tonight, the rest of the schedule for the Flyers, who are third in the Metropolitan Division (86 points): home against Columbus, at Boston, vs. Buffalo, at Florida, Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh, and vs. Carolina.

It is the Flyers' choice whether this long road smoothes out before the end of the pavement or remains full of turbulence.

"We've done a great job of going up against some of the best teams in the league and coming out on top," goaltender Steve Mason said. "We're in a situation right now where every person in this organization and dressing room believes we can go on a long playoff run. To be in this position now, after where we started, is definitely exciting and something to be proud of - but no one is going to be happy until we get into the playoffs securely and start making some noise."

Here are the other teams that will most impact the Flyers' playoff hunt down the stretch:

Clinched

Pittsburgh, Boston

The favorites

NY Rangers

(Metropolitan Division, No. 2)

Points: 88

Remaining (6): @Van, @Col, OTT, CAR, BUF, @Mtl

Strength of schedule: .526

Detroit

(Wild card No. 1)

Points: 84

Remaining (7): BOS, BUF, @Mtl, @Buf, @Pit, CAR, @StL

Strength of schedule: .558

Columbus

(Wild card No. 2)

Points: 82

Remaining (8): COL, @Phi, CHI, NYI, PHX, @Dal, @TB, @Fla

Strength of schedule: .564

The outliers

Washington

Points: 81

Remaining (7): DAL, @NJ, @NYI, @StL, @Car, CHI, TB

Strength of schedule: .575

Toronto

Points: 80

Remaining (6): CGY, BOS, WPG, @TB, @Fla, @Ott

Strength of schedule: .538

Say goodnight

New Jersey, Ottawa, Carolina, Islanders, Florida, Buffalo

Slap shots

Kimmo Timonen did not make the trip and will miss tonight's game with an "upper-body" injury. He is listed as "day-to-day," presumably hurting from a slap shot he took on the chin in the second period on Sunday. Erik Gustafsson will play his first game since Feb. 27 . . . Steve Downie, who skated yesterday, said he is healthy and has cleared all remaining tests from a "weird shot to the neck" on March 22. The Flyers appear to be in no rush to get Downie back into the lineup: "I'm not ready for that yet," coach Craig Berube said.

On-ice

STAT WATCH

4: Appearances Steve Mason needs to match a career high of 61, set in 2008-09 when he won the Calder Trophy with Columbus. Craig Berube says he doesn’t have a set number in mind of remaining starts he’d like to give Mason.

5-1-1: >Mason’s record in his last seven games. He is seventh in the NHL in wins (31) this season. Mason is 16th in the NHL in save percentage (.916) among goalies with at least 30 games this season.

2: Hat tricks scored by St. Louis in back-to-back games last week — David Backes (at Toronto) and T.J. Oshie (vs. Minnesota). Oshie was named the NHL’s Third Star of the Week yesterday with six points in three games. Oshie, the U.S. Olympic star, has set career highs in nearly every offensive category this season.

THE WEEK AHEAD

at St. Louis

Tonight, 8 o’clock

According to Ken Hitchcock, the Blues are still trying to chase down Boston for the Presidents’ Trophy, one of the most meaningless awards in hockey. St. Louis (26-6-2) has been nearly unbeatable at home this season, though it’s only 25th in the NHL in attendance.

vs. Columbus

Thursday, 7 o’clock

The Blue Jackets haven’t seized every opportunity to solidify a much-needed spot, dropping games against Carolina and the Islanders, and needing overtime Saturday against the Hurricanes. One thing to keep in mind: Columbus closes with seven games in 9 days, thanks to a strange situation in which it will need to replay a game in Dallas that was postponed after the Stars’ Rich Peverley collapsed on March 16.

at Boston

Saturday, 1 o’clock

The Bruins are one of three teams (Hurricanes, Lightning) the Flyers haven’t beaten this season. The Flyers will get their second crack in 6 days in a Saturday matinee at TD Garden, where they are 1-2-1 since Oct. 6, 2011.

vs. Buffalo

Sunday, 7:30 p.m.

Former Flyer Ville Leino still doesn’t have a goal in 52 games this season, his third year of a $27 million deal that could well see him bought out by Buffalo this summer. Other than coach Ted Nolan’s new deal, Leino is about the most interesting thing about the unwatchable Sabres.


On Twitter: @DNFlyers

Blog: ph.ly/FrequentFlyers

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