Flyers Not Fading: Why Philadelphia Is in Good Shape for the 2011 NHL Playoffs
After spending the first four months of the NHL season tearing their way through the competition, the Flyers have looked significantly more vulnerable since the All-Star break.
A recent spate of blown leads (like a three-goal third period lead at home to Atlanta) and bad losses (like a forgettable 7-0 road loss to the Rangers) have the Flyers in a free fall down online power rankings. It also has the Philadelphia faithful questioning whether the team can fulfill its playoff promise.
Fear not, Flyers fans: Things aren't nearly as bleak as they seem. Here are six reasons the team has reason to feel confident about its chances to make a Stanley Cup run.
1. The Standings
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As bad as things have seemed recently, the Flyers have maintained their hold on first place, both in the Atlantic Division and in the Eastern Conference.
Granted, teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins and red-hot Washington Capitals have narrowed the gap. But the Flyers have picked up 14 of a possible 18 points over their last nine games, a fairly impressive streak.
On top of that, the Flyers' eight remaining games are tied for the most in the Eastern Conference. Simply taking care of business should be enough to let the Flyers hang on to the first-overall playoff seed.
2. The Schedule
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It's not just the fact that the Flyers have at least one game in hand against most of the teams chasing them. It's who those games are against.
The Flyers will have some tough matchups, against Pittsburgh, Boston and the New York Rangers. But they also play winnable games against the Atlanta Thrashers and Ottawa Senators, two of the East's bottom feeders.
They'll also play the New Jersey Devils, a team that has started to cool off since some very inspired midseason hockey, with a 4-5-1 record in their last 10 games.
The Flyers also have the good fortune of closing the season at home against the Islanders, against whom they've won 20 of their last 21 games. If the Flyers need two points in the finale to clinch the first seed, it's a good bet that they'll get them.
3. Chris Pronger's Return
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The Flyers have had to play a significant chunk of the season, including the last couple of weeks, without game-changer Chris Pronger.
Pronger's broken hand still isn't fully healed, but both he and team doctors expect the big defenseman to return before the end of the regular season. Ideally, Pronger would get his legs back under him during the last two or three games.
Pronger hasn't been his usual dominant self this season, in and out of the lineup with various injuries. But there's no doubt he's a difference maker, a true shutdown defender with the ability to get under an opposing superstar's skin.
The Flyers will be hoping that Pronger's absence during the season has kept his legs fresh for the demanding minutes he'll surely receive in the playoffs.
4. The Depth
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The Flyers are one of the deepest, most balanced teams in the league, featuring three, true scoring lines. The team leads the league with eight skaters tallying at least 17 goals so far this season.
That depth means that the Flyers can survive slumps by one or more of their top players, and that's exactly what they've done.
Sniper Danny Briere has only six goals in his last 24 games. Flyers leading-scorer Claude Giroux has just five goals in the same span, and team captain Mike Richards has only four.
Nonetheless, other players have stepped up to fill the scoring void. Jeff Carter has six goals in his last 10 games, and wingers James van Riemsdyk and Ville Leino have each notched a hat trick in March.
With so many weapons at his disposal, coach Peter Laviolette has been able to juggle lines in an attempt to generate extra offense. That depth also means it will be difficult for opposing teams to concentrate on shutting down any one line during the playoffs.
5. The Coach
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Philadelphia newspaper writers have taken to calling coach Peter Laviolette "The Driven One," and with good reason.
Laviolette is a model of seriousness. He is stoic, focused and able to motivate his team in a number of different ways. He has skated them hard after some bad losses, while issuing calming statements after others.
Many jokes have been cracked about Laviolette's liberal use of timeouts, but they speak to his ability to push the right buttons at the right times.
Most importantly, Laviolette has been there before, coaching the Hurricanes to a Stanley Cup title in 2006. That experience, as well as the Flyers' veteran influences, shone through as the team completed its epic comeback from a 3-0 series deficit against Boston in last year's playoffs.
It's worth noting as well that Laviolette's Cup-winning Hurricanes team closed the regular season losing nine of its final 16 games. That poor finish obviously didn't hurt the team come playoff time.
6. The Seaon to Date
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Most importantly, this Flyers team has already shown what it's capable of. In sole possession of first place for more than two months, it's entirely possible that the team has succumbed to some level of complacency.
This is a team that is one win short of a new franchise record for road wins in a season, and that has already strung together four winning streaks of at least four games.
The Flyers lead the conference in goals and are second only to Boston in goal differential. More than a third of the team's losses have come via shootout, a format the Flyers won't have to deal with in the playoffs.
The team returns 16 players from last year's conference champions, and that experience suggests the Flyers will be able to flip a switch come playoff time.
Though it's true that fans of the team would probably like to see the Flyers cruise into the playoffs on a major hot streak, it's equally true that the team has all of the pieces necessary to make another deep run.