The Philadelphia Flyers were dealt a significant blow shortly before the NHL’s All-Star break, as the team announced starting goaltender Carter Hart would miss two to three weeks with an abdominal strain. While injuries are never ideal, the timing of this one could be worse. Hart is only expected to miss four or five games, due to the NHL’s decision to combine the team’s bye week with the time off from the All-Star break.
Brian Elliott Has Held Down the Fort
The Flyers’ decision to bring back goaltender Brian Elliott this past offseason looks better and better each day. Elliott has been extremely reliable this season as a backup goalie, posting a 12-5-3 record, along with a 2.89 goals against average and a .904 save percentage.
While he has had a history of injuries in the past, many of those stemmed from being overused and starting too many consecutive games. Head coach Alain Vigneault has been very smart with his goalie usage, thrusting Elliott into more of a traditional backup role, thus keeping the 34-year-old netminder fresh for when the team needs him.
With Hart on the shelf, Elliott has been stellar, winning all three of his previous starts. Not to mention, one of those victories came against the defending Stanley Cup champion St Louis Blues, while another was a shutout of a fierce division rival in the Pittsburgh Penguins. Times like this are an important reason why any team with playoff aspirations needs to have two reliable goaltenders.
Flyers’ Stars Must Continue Strong Play
The Flyers have been plagued by injuries all season, and they need their star forwards to continue stepping up, especially with their talented young netminder missing some time. First-time All-Star Travis Konecny is one player rising to the occasion, as he has three goals and four points in the four games that Hart has missed, including two huge goals in the victory over the Los Angeles Kings.
Another player who has come through in the clutch is winger Jakub Voracek, scoring two pivotal goals in victories over the Blues and Penguins, including the overtime winner in St Louis. James van Riemsdyk has also been vital to the Flyers’ success, with five points in the past four games. Van Riemsdyk had a monster three-point performance against the Kings, and potted a goal against the Penguins.
After his brief demotion due to the Flyers’ salary cap issues, rookie Joel Farabee has made his presence known in his three games following the demotion. Farabee has scored a point in each of the past three games, two of which were goals. Lastly, captain Claude Giroux has experienced a bit of a scoring surge after being placed on a line with van Riemsdyk and Konecny, as he has four assists in the past four games. The Flyers are in the thick of a playoff race in the cutthroat Eastern Conference, so they desperately need their stars to continue scoring at a torrid pace.
Eastern Conference Will Be a Dog Fight Until the Very End
Over the past few years, the Eastern Conference has developed a reputation of being fiercely competitive up until the very end of the season. There is always a very good team or two who miss out on the playoffs due to the conference’s abundance of talented teams. The Metropolitan Division is an even heavier battle, as six of the NHL’s top 11 teams are from this division.
The Flyers currently find themselves one point out of a playoff spot as a result of the division’s high level of competition. The Carolina Hurricanes sit one point above the Flyers, currently occupying the final wild card slot. Despite recently losing their top defenseman Dougie Hamilton to a broken fibula, the Canes show no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
Sitting in the first wild card spot, two points above the Flyers, are the surging Columbus Blue Jackets, who have been stellar, even with all their injury troubles. The Blue Jackets’ injury troubles were so brutal at one point that two of their forward lines were entirely made up of players from the Cleveland Monsters, the team’s American Hockey League affiliate.
Furthermore, many believed the Blue Jackets were doomed when All-Star goaltender Joonas Korpisalo suffered a torn meniscus. His backup, Latvian rookie Elvis Merzlikins had not won a single game at the time of Korpisalo’s injury. However, Merzlikins has most certainly entered the building in the weeks since, and in fact has been the league’s best goaltender over the past month. He has won all but two of his previous 11 starts, including a stretch where he had three shutouts in a four-game span.
The New York Islanders, currently third in the division with 63 points, have been one of the league’s coldest teams as of late. They recently lost top pairing defenseman Adam Pelech for the season, and are a prime target to be overtaken by surging teams like the Flyers, Blue Jackets, and Hurricanes. Lastly, the Toronto Maple Leafs sit three points behind the Flyers, but certainly have the talent to make a strong push in the coming weeks.
Overall, the Eastern Conference playoff race will be a tight and entertaining battle to watch over the coming months, especially among the Metropolitan Division teams. The Flyers’ largest issue this season has been their performance on long road trips, as evidenced by their struggles on both their West Coast and Western Canada swings. Luckily, the Flyers do not have any long road trips remaining, as none of their upcoming trips will be more than three games, and they have just one game left that takes place outside the Eastern time zone. They have also fared much better against Eastern Conference teams.
The Flyers can no longer use these long road trips as an excuse, and must step up, especially with their remaining schedule tailored to the team’s strengths. They have certainly played like a playoff team this season and have shown they are capable of competing against the league’s best, as evidenced by recent wins over the Capitals, Bruins, Blues, and Penguins. The Flyers must do whatever it takes to overtake teams like the Islanders, Blue Jackets, and Hurricanes, and finally bring postseason hockey back to Broad Street.
Columbia University student, Philadelphia native, passionate hockey fan. Philadelphia Flyers writer for THW. I also cover the NHL for Puck Prose.