Make-Or-Break Month Looming for Flyers

Back in mid-December, the Philadelphia Flyers were one of the hottest teams in the NHL. They’ve cooled off significantly since then, having dropped eight of their last 10 games, and now sit amid a jumbled mess of Eastern Conference teams vying for wildcard playoff spots. With just under three months to go in the regular season, there is certainly time for Philly to turn things around. That said, three months is also enough time to unravel completely. The Flyers are currently in the middle of their bye week, but this brief rest period will be followed shortly by a pretty unforgiving stretch of their schedule. If this team is going to put together a serious playoff push, they need to sharpen their claws, because one way or the other, the month of February will have a lot to say about whether or not Philadelphia is still standing when the dust settles on the regular season.

No Place Like Home

After finishing up January with a manageable handful of games, the Flyers will try to defend the Wells Fargo Center in a five-game home stand. Philly has a home record of 14-6-3, which is middle-of-the-road for the league, but that number will be tested in this challenging couple of days. Four of their five opponents would make the playoffs if the season ended today, and the first of those is the Montreal Canadiens. Montreal is flat-out running away with the Atlantic Division, and figures to be in the mix for the Presidents’ Trophy come April.  A statement win on home ice against the Habs would go a long way toward setting the tone for the rest of this stretch.

Shea Weber, Alex Galchenyuk and Alexander Radulov (Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports)

Three Western Conference teamsLos Angeles, St. Louis, and San Joseare scheduled to visit Philadelphia as well. The Los Angeles Kings are in a similar position to the Flyers at this point in the season, so their desperation should not be taken lightly. The St. Louis Blues and San Jose Sharks both have winning records against the East, with the Sharks boasting a staggering 15-6 record against teams in the Eastern Conference. These are three playoff-caliber teams led by experienced veterans, and they will not approach a visit to South Philly with any complacency.

The Flyers should be looking to do more than break even during this five-game stretch, but their matchup against the New York Islanders qualifies as a must-win. The Islanders, who earlier today fired head coach Jack Capuano, have been arguably the single most disappointing team in the NHL this season. No matter what else happens on this home stand, the Flyers need to kick the Isles while they’re down.

The Flyers’ Road Test

Not all road trips are created equal. Sometimes you get to bounce around the east coast on short flights and maybe even bus rides, and other times you fly three-quarters of the way across the continent. Such will be the case when the Flyers travel north of the border to Canada for three games. The first of these will take place in Vancouver against a Canucks team that the Flyers just defeated 5-4 in a shootout last week. The Canucks sit just two points back of the second wild card spot in the West, but they are not very good. The Flyers should win this game.

There’s no rest for the weary after that, though, as they will head straight to Calgary the next day for what is sure to be a much more difficult challenge. The Flames are an elite goalie away from putting together the kind of postseason run nobody sees coming until it’s too late. The second night of a back-to-back is always taxing, especially for a team that’s dead last in goals allowed and save percentage. Against a fast, young team like Calgary, this is the kind of game that will test Philadelphia’s mettle.

(Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Flyers will end this three-game road trip at Edmonton where they’ll get to deal with Connor McDavid for a night. Edmonton, like Calgary, is a young team that is poised to announce its postseason presence with authority this spring. For the Flyers to leave Canada with three victories after this stretch would be extremely impressive.  It’s a daunting task, but the first order of business is to take care of Vancouver. If they can steal one of the next two, they would have to be thrilled with four points.

No Love Lost

Upon passing back through the border, Philly will host the Washington Capitals before heading out to Pittsburgh for a highly-anticipated outdoor game at Heinz Field.  Depending on how February’s first few weeks end up going, the Flyers could be in any of a number of different mindsets at this point in the season. If they roll into these two rivalry games on a high note, they can use the heated showdowns to catapult themselves into the home stretch. Should they falter early on, however, the Capitals and Penguins may have a chance to shovel some dirt on their Metropolitan Division enemies.

The last time the Flyers saw Washington, they were humiliated 5-0. There is no doubt Claude Giroux and company will be looking to avenge that, but it won’t come easy against the Caps. Washington has really started to heat up over the last couple of weeks, and there’s no reason to expect this team full of veterans to take their foot off the gas anytime soon.

Claude Giroux, Sidney Crosby (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Philly and Pittsburgh have not played since October. This is by no means an accident on the part of the NHL’s scheduling department. The rivalry’s violent reputation precedes itself, and the powers that be have elected to save the bulk of these matchups for late in the season when the stakes are higher and the mutual hatred is somehow even more palpable. Needless to say, this makes for supremely entertaining hockey, and the added element of an outdoor venue just enhances the intrigue.

Still, take away all the outside factors, and these are two games the Flyers will most likely need to win more than their opponents will.

Philly’s last game in the month of February is another home bout against the Colorado Avalanche. Colorado has been so abysmal this season that just about any team in the NHL can safely expect to defeat them, but if the Flyers don’t take care of business throughout the rest of the month it won’t matter much.

Playing 11 games in 28 days might not seem like an incredibly overwhelming task. From where Philadelphia sits, though, and given the quality of the opposition they’ll face along the way, these 11 games will determine general manager Ron Hextall’s approach to the Feb. 28 trade deadline. If they struggle to keep pace with their Eastern Conference counterparts, they will abdicate and begin planning for next year. But, if the Philadelphia Flyers are still alive in the postseason hunt when they leave Heinz Field on the night of Feb. 25, they’ll have earned it.