Following Tuesday night's 3-2 victory over the Panthers in South Florida, the Philadelphia Flyers entered the NHL All-Star break on a high note. Garnering five of a possible six points in the three games leading up to the respite in the schedule, the orange-and-black have put themselves in a decent position to contend for both the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference crowns.
Make no mistake, it's quite the accomplishment for Peter Laviolette's squad to be sitting just three points short of the New York Rangers for the lead in each, as the team has battled through some major adversity up to this point.
They lost their captain and best defenseman Chris Pronger to a season-ending concussion, and have dealt with an assorted array of injuries to other key players. Danny Briere and James van Riemsdyk remain on the shelf with concussions, and Jaromir Jagr is still out with a nagging groin injury. There has been wildly inconsistent play from Ilya Bryzgalov, the offseason goaltending acquisition who was supposed to instantaneously stabilize the position and correct a long-time insufficiency in the crease. Not to mention the general assimilation of an overhauled group of forwards and eight rookies into the lineup.
The Flyers have perservered and even thrived at times during the campaign, all the while having displayed an overall character that perhaps appeared to be lacking last year. Maybe that came along with the afore-mentioned summer facelift. Adding seasoned veterans like Jagr and Maxime Talbot, both of whom had previously won Stanley Cups in the western portion of the state, has been invaluable for an otherwise young roster.
Two major factors to the team's success thus far has been their success on the road and the play of their rookies.
Owners of a 29-14-5 record for 63 points after 48 games, Philly is a bit behind last season's pace. The Flyers played 50 games before the All-Star break in January of 2011, posting a 33-12-5 mark for what was a League-best 71 points. Last year's team finished with 106 points, one short of the conference-winning Washington Capitals. Both editions were excellent on the road. The club has sported an 18-7-2 record away from the Wells Fargo Center this season, which is fairly similar to last year's 17-5-3 mark at the same juncture. It's interesting to note that both of those road records were the best in the NHL at the break.
They Were Not Merely Freshmen
The Flyers' first-year players have had a tremendous impact on the team's fortunes. With Matt Read, Sean Couturier, Brayden Schenn, Zac Rinaldo, Harry Zolnierczyk, and Tom Sestito up front and Marc-Andre Bourdon and Erik Gustafsson on the blueline, Philadelphia possesses one of the strongest stables of freshmen this year.
The capability of being able to play both Read and Couturier in any situation has also come in handy for Laviolette, while the importance of the group's combined 34 goals and 71 points to an offense that had some serious questions as to where the offensive production would come from heading into the season has been immeasurable.
The one worry about the youngsters is that often times they aren't accustomed to the everyday grind of an NHL season, and they tail off during the latter stages of the schedule. Any noticeable drop off in play and / or production down the stretch from the club's rookies could prove to be disastrous.
After Read and Schenn scored against Florida on Tuesday, Flyers rookies have scored goals in 11 of the last 13 Flyers' games, including eight of the last nine. For a club that has seen power failures from time-to-time from veterans not named Claude Giroux and Scott Hartnell for a good portion of the year, the continued need for the rookies to chip in is crucial to the club's finish.
Another component to the Flyers stretch drive will be their play at home. Having played six less games in South Philly than they have on the road, the mediocre 11-7-3 record at the Wells Fargo will have to be improved upon.
Last season's 6-5-5 for 22 points in their final 16 home games following the break was a point of frustration for Laviolette and his troops. There was an inordinate amount of late-game collapses where Philadelphia blew leads and points in the standings. A repeat of anything resembling that performance will be fatal in the standings.
Combining the home mark from last February until now, the Flyers are just 17-12-8 in 37 contests. That's only 42 out of a possible 74 points, or just 56%. That's just not good enough.
With 20 of the last 34 contests being played at the Wells Fargo, it's time for Philadelphia to step up and take away a significant number of points. The 'Road Warriors' need to make it a true home-ice advantage. If the club were to re-establish themselves as a dominant home team, the success on the road would just be icing on the cake.
In addition to their play at home down the stretch, Philadelphia will need to grab every point possible in every situation. This would include in situations such as the dreaded shootout. Like it or not, the 'battle of the breakaway ' has become a very important difference-maker in determining a team's destiny.
It's pretty ironic the club's good feelings at this time were triggered after a shootout win, as it has become the norm for the Flyers to bemoan their fate after dropping another decision. Even though they had come back from a deficit to tie the Boston Bruins and gain an all-important point in the standings on Sunday, the shootout loss in which Bryzgalov failed to stop any of the three shots he faced left a bitter taste in their mouths. In Tuesday's game against Florida, the Flyers won their first of four shootout attempts for the season, snapping a six-game losing streak in shootouts, with Philly's last win coming in March of 2011 in Dallas, a win that took 12 rounds. Even when the Flyers win these sideshows, it never comes easy.
The skills competition-turned-game-decider has never been very kind to the team since its inception, with one notable exception -- on a mid-April day in 2010, when Giroux and Brian Boucher combined to beat the Rangers in a do-or-die fight for their very playoff existence.
Going back to last season, Philadelphia seems to find themselves in shootouts in clusters of games, playing four consecutive contests that ended in the shootout in March. They thankfully saw just two go past overtime this year prior to January, but now have gone to the previous skills comptetition-only event in their last two tilts.
A mirror reflection of Bryzgalov's 0-5 record in opposition shootout attempts this year, Sergei Bobrovsky turned aside all three Panthers' shooters on Tuesday. If Bryzgalov is to be a key contributor in the run to the postseason, he will have to be much better in his shootout efforts.
Philadelphia has done far better than many pundits had predicted after the offseason trades of both Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. In addition to the play of Wayne Simmonds and Jakub Voracek, who were part of the returns in those deals, the rookies have been excellent. If they can continue with their consistent contributions to the cause, there is no reason to believe the Flyers won't challenge for the Atlantic and conference titles.
If the club's home record doesn't see a marked improvement down the stretch, home-ice advantage for the playoffs may not be a realistic endeavor. The postseason makes home ice success a veritable necessity because when you're facing only the good teams in the second season, those clubs traditionally take care of business in their own barns. When the likelihood of continuing their high winning percentage away from the Wells Fargo decreases in the playoffs, it becomes even more imperative to prove themselves at the Wells Fargo Center.
These factors, along with the near certainty that Paul Holmgren will make at least one trade to bring in some much needed defensive help in the next month before the February 27 trade deadline, should bolster the club's hopes.
They will have that opportunity when the NHL schedule resumes on January 31. The visitors that night will be the Winnipeg Jets, who embarassed the Flyers in front of their home fans in a late-October 9-8 disgrace. With the memories of that horrid effort still faint in the player's minds, what better way to start off the stretch drive than to show a totally different performance?