The 5 Biggest Questions for Philadelphia Flyers in the Home Stretch in 2013-14
The Philadelphia Flyers are on a roll.
Since February 1, the Orange and Black are 13-4-2 in 19 games and have garnered 28 of a possible 38 points during that stretch.
Philly's recent surge includes victories over playoff-bound opponents like the St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche and Chicago Blackhawks, and features a pair of home-and-home sweeps over division rivals Washington and Pittsburgh.
And yet, despite Philadelphia's resurgence, the Flyers' playoff fate still remains in the balance.
Entering Tuesday's action, Philly remained in sole possession of third place in the Metropolitan Division, just two points behind the second-place New York Rangers. However, the team is only two and four points, respectively, ahead of wild-card clubs Detroit and Columbus.
With just eight games to go, here are the five biggest questions surrounding the Flyers in the home stretch of the 2013-14 regular season.
Can Claude Giroux Stay Red-Hot?
Has anyone in the NHL been better than Claude Giroux in recent weeks?
Simply put, the answer is "no" because the 26-year-old pivot is absolutely on fire.
In 14 March outings, Philadelphia's captain notched six goals, 15 assists and 21 points. Giroux produced at least one point in 11 of those 14 tilts and managed seven multi-point outings during that stretch.
The Flyers not only won all four March games in which their captain found the back of the net, but the Orange and Black have now won eight straight outings in which Giroux has scored.
What's more, the Flyers have won 10 straight games with their captain producing multiple points and are now 15-2 in their last 17 games in which Giroux has notched two or more points.
Giroux's enhanced production has directly led to his team's resurgence.
If the NHL's third-leading scorer can continue producing in April as he did in March, it will bode awfully well for Philly's playoff positioning. If not, the final eight games could be quite the struggle for the Orange and Black.
Can Vincent Lecavalier Thrive in His New Role?
Until last weekend, Vincent Lecavalier had been a complete non-factor offensively in recent months.
Heading into last Friday's showdown with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the 33-year-old forward had notched just three goals and nine points in 17 games since February 1.
Then Flyers head coach Craig Berube made a drastic move, dropping Lecavalier from the wing on the second line to his natural position at center on the squad's fourth line. For a proud athlete like Lecavalier, the demotion served as motivation, and the 14-year veteran subsequently produced one of his best weekends of the season.
He notched the opener in Friday's 4-2 triumph over Toronto and then converted a pair, including the game-tying tally with just 25 seconds left in regulation, in Sunday's 4-3 shootout loss to the Boston Bruins.
It's unclear if Lecavalier will remain on the fourth line for the remainder of the season, but one thing is certain: The Flyers need the former Stanley Cup champ to produce like he did last weekend if Philadelphia is to make any sort of a run come playoff time.
Can Steve Mason Hold Up Through His Heavy Workload?
The Flyers are usually embroiled in goaltending questions at this time of year. Not this season.
After Giroux, Mason has been Philadelphia's most valuable player. He's 31-17-7 overall with four shutouts, a 2.53 goals-against average and a .916 save percentage. The Flyers have justifiably been riding their hot netminder down the stretch.
Since Philly returned to action after the Olympic break, Mason has started 13 of the team's 15 games. In those 13 outings, the Flyers are 8-3-2 with their goaltender forced to face at least 29 shots on goal nine times.
Mason has been a workhorse since late February and will likely patrol the Philadelphia crease during each important game moving forward. For a Flyers team battling for playoff positioning, that means virtually every tilt the rest of the way.
With 56 starts to date, the 25-year-old Mason has already started the second-most games of his career and is just five starts shy of matching his career high set during his Vezina Trophy-winning rookie campaign five years ago.
Mason was critical down the stretch that year in guiding the Columbus Blue Jackets to their first and only postseason appearance in franchise history and will be critical once again in determining Philadelphia's playoff fate.
Can Philadelphia's Penalty Kill Remain Razor-Sharp?
The Flyers are the most penalized team in the NHL.
Philadelphia has committed a league-high 401 total infractions this year, leading to an NHL-high 1,100 penalty minutes. The Flyers are one of just two teams to have committed over 1,000 minutes in penalties so far and entered Tuesday's action averaging a league-high 14.9 penalty minutes per game.
Philly plays a physical, in-your-face style of game and that isn't about to change anytime soon.
That has put added pressure on the team's penalty kill, which has responded admirably.
Entering Tuesday's tilt in St. Louis, the Flyers had surrendered just two power-play goals over their last 11 games. During that stretch, the Orange and Black successfully killed 37 of the team's 39 man-down situations, producing a jaw-dropping 94.9 penalty-killing percentage.
Philadelphia has allowed just seven power-play goals in 15 games since the Olympic break. As a result, the Orange and Black have raised their overall penalty kill to fifth in the league at 84.8 percent.
Dynamic skaters with active sticks like Sean Couturier and Matt Read highlight the team's penalty-killing effort and that group's continued success will be essential to the team's continued success.
Can the Flyers Secure Home-Ice Advantage for the 1st Round of the Playoffs?
Entering Tuesday's action, the Flyers held respective five- and six-point edges over Washington and Toronto, the two clubs immediately on the outside of the Eastern Conference playoff picture looking in.
With just seven games remaining for the Capitals and only six for the Maple Leafs, the math is certainly in Philadelphia's favor. It's obviously not guaranteed at this time that the Flyers will qualify for the postseason, but it looks awfully encouraging for the Orange and Black.
One aspect of the playoff picture that's still unclear is whether or not Philadelphia will host its postseason opener.
The Flyers are too far behind Pittsburgh to catch the Penguins in the standings, so the only chance Philly has to host the first game in the opening round is to claim second place in the Metropolitan Division away from the New York Rangers.
The Flyers are presently just two points back of the Rangers, but have played two fewer games to date than their archrivals.
Both sides are in action Tuesday and the two won't be even in games played until the Flyers close out their regular-season calendar Sunday, April 13 at home against the Carolina Hurricanes.
Between now and then, Philadelphia will play five of its final eight games against teams with records above .500 while the Rangers will battle four teams with records over .500 in their final six outings.
The two sides played their final head-to-head contest last week when the Blueshirts outlasted the Broad Street Bullies 3-1 at Madison Square Garden. Could those two points be the difference in deciding which team gets home-ice advantage in the first round? The next two weeks will tell.
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