The Philadelphia Flyers’ February schedule has proven to be just as brutal on the ice as it was on paper going in. Philly has amassed just seven of a possible 16 points this month, creating a two-pronged problem: they haven’t separated themselves from the likes of Boston or Toronto, and they’ve also allowed the dangerous New York Islanders and Florida Panthers to climb back into the race.
It’s possible that the Flyers are just an all-around flawed team. It’s possible that their 10-game winning streak was just a mirage. It’s possible that things are going to get worse before they get better. And yet, it’s still possible that they make the playoffs this season.
If that’s going to happen, they need a galvanizing moment. These kinds of moments come in all different forms, and can show up at any time. Sometimes it’s a goalie making a ludicrous save after being hung out to dry. Other times it’s a heroic overtime goal. Heck, sometimes even negative occurrences can cause a team to rally together.
Yes, these moments can present themselves at any time, but there are most certainly times when they are more likely to occur. If the Flyers are going to rally around anything, there is no better time than in their next two games against the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Taking Down Holtby
The Capitals have been one of the strongest teams in the NHL over the last few weeks, but goaltender Braden Holtby has been uncharacteristically human of late. He has a pedestrian .893 save percentage over his last five starts, and did not face more than 23 shots in any of those games. Washington was victorious in all but one of them, and these numbers are certainly outliers in an otherwise impressive season, but they are worth noting nonetheless. The Flyers are averaging just under 33 shots per game in their last three, so they should be looking to exploit Holtby’s sudden tendency to get beat a few times even when facing relatively low shot totals.
This is, of course, much easier said than done against a Capitals team with the best goal differential in the entire league. Holtby can afford to give up one or two knowing his teammates are going to net him four or five at the other end.
In a game against a team with such a potent offense, the Flyers will need to put their physicality on display.
Philadelphia ranks fifth in the league in hits per game, while the Capitals rank 16th. It’s up to players like Wayne Simmonds to try to neutralize the abilities of Nicklas Backstrom and company by making them pay the iron price.
The Wells Fargo Center will be rocking on Wednesday night when the puck drops on a nationally televised game against Washington. If the Flyers want to keep that buzz going late into the third period, they need to stand toe-to-toe with the intimidating Capitals. Beat Holtby a few times early in net, and literally beat the Caps’ top scorers, and maybe the Flyers can find their moment.
The Bright Lights of Heinz Field
If Philly doesn’t find it at home against Washington, there will be an abundance of opportunities for redemption on Saturday when they take on Pittsburgh in the Coors Light Stadium Series. This is a game the entire state of Pennsylvania has been waiting years for, and while I’m still hopeful that they’ll someday throw this rivalry right smack in the middle of the Keystone State at Beaver Stadium, the Pittsburgh venue is more than good enough for now.
This matchup comes fully equipped with all the bells and whistles: a rivalry renewed, some snazzy uniforms, the first ever open-air contest between the Penguins and Flyers and the high-profile stars on both sides. But if I may use a little bit of coach-speak here, the Flyers just need to go out and play a hockey game.
The hype surrounding an outdoor game is great for marketing and promotion, but at the end of the day it really is just one of 82 games. These two teams could play in an empty high school gym and they would still try to beat the living daylights out of each other. They don’t need any extra incentive.
The Flyers need to take advantage of an injury-plagued Penguins lineup in this one. Pittsburgh is without defensemen Olli Maatta and Justin Schultz for the foreseeable future, and forwards Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary are out as well.
Maatta has not performed particularly well this season, but Schultz has arguably been the Pens’ best player on the blue line. Rust and Sheary were also playing at a high level before getting hurt, so well that they found themselves on the Penguins’ top line with Sidney Crosby.
Pittsburgh has had to reach deep into its talent pool, calling upon players like Chad Ruhwedel and Carter Rowney to fill the voids left by their injured stars. The Penguins are by no means rolling out a skeleton lineup, but the opportunity certainly exists for the Flyers to exploit the absence of a few key players.
In this game, though, all bets are off. This is going to be a hard-fought, physical contest, and all the outside factors concerning Pittsburgh’s injuries and Philadelphia’s recent struggles will be left at the door. The only thing standing in the way of this steel cage match could be the weather, as the forecast for Pittsburgh on Saturday may include some rain.
The Flyers are a team in need of some soul-searching, and if they are unable to find anything deep down within each other in two games against their bitter rivals this late in the season, it may be time to pack it in. They haven’t folded just yet, but this week may be their last chance to stick around.