Flyers’ Playoff Path Is Narrow

Just two weeks ago, the Philadelphia Flyers had less than a one percent chance to make the playoffs. One long winning streak–eight games and counting–later, and that’s up to over three percent or even six percent in various simulations.

But since the NHL switched to the new divisional playoff format before the 2013-14 season, the team has twice made improbable runs in their last 29 games to snag a late wild card spot, though the hole they’re in now is just a couple of inches deeper than it was in 2016 or 2018. The odds are tight, but there remains a narrow path.

Philadelphia Flyers celebrate
The Philadelphia Flyers have had reason to celebrate amidst their eight-game winning streak. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

To date, they have accumulated 54 points through 53 games, sitting seven back of the Columbus Blue Jackets, who have a game in hand, for the final wild card spot. Realistically, the Blue Jackets are the only team in the East at real risk of relinquishing their spot. The other wild card will most likely be filled by the fourth-place finisher from the Atlantic Division, either the Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins or Montreal Canadiens, and all three are at least four points ahead of Columbus and 10 ahead of the Flyers.

Before their last two improbable runs, the Flyers weren’t very far ahead of where they are now. In 2018, they had 59 through 53 games; in 2016, they had 57. In both campaigns, they finished 17-7-5 (39 points), clearing the ninth-place team in the East by two or more points.

Flyers’ Playoff Possibilities

Those 17-7-5 finishes are a good starting point, but they’ll have to do a bit better this time around. The fewest points an Eastern Conference team has needed to make the playoffs under the current format has been 93, but they usually finish in the 96-point range. Columbus is pacing for roughly 96.

Given that they have already lost the season series with Columbus and are at a seven-game disadvantage in regulation-or-overtime wins, there are no tiebreakers to rely on. That means, at bare minimum, the Flyers will need about 44 more points in their final 29 games for a safe shot at a playoff spot.

Columbus Blue Jackets Sergei Bobrovsky and Zach Werenski
The Flyers may need some help from Columbus if they hope to chart a narrow path to the postseason. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods)

There’s always the possibility that Columbus stumbles slightly and eases the path. Uncertainty swirls around the team’s two biggest stars, forward Artemi Panarin and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, who both may be on their way out of town in free agency–and perhaps sooner, if the right offers arrive. John Tortorella’s teams have also been historically prone to streakiness, so they may just as easily put that final playoff berth out of reach as they could relinquish it.

And Columbus isn’t the only team ahead of the Flyers. Should the Blue Jackets slip, the Buffalo Sabres and Carolina Hurricanes both have a four-point leg-up on the Flyers to steal the spot. So, assuming the final Eastern wild card team finishes between 93 and 97 points, these are all of the record combinations that would produce a minimum of 94 to 98 points points in the Flyers’ final 29 games:

94 points 95 points 96 points 97 points 98 points
20-9-0 20-8-1 21-8-0 21-7-1 22-7-0
19-8-2 19-7-3 20-7-2 20-6-3 21-6-2
18-7-4 18-6-5 19-6-4 19-5-5 19-4-6
17-6-6 17-5-7 18-5-6 18-4-7 18-3-8
16-5-8 16-4-9 17-4-8 17-3-9 17-2-10
15-4-10 15-3-11 16-3-10 16-2-11 16-1-12
14-3-12 14-2-13 14-1-14 15-1-13 15-0-14
13-2-14 13-1-15 13-0-16 14-0-15
12-1-16 12-0-17

Not an easy road, indeed. Many of those scenarios are implausible: They could in fact lose more games than they win and still get 97 points as long as all the losses take longer than 60 minutes, but that seems highly unlikely. As it stands, the best hope is for a combination of Columbus slipping slightly and a finish that takes their previous 17-7-5 runs and flips the regulation and OT/SO losses, to give them a minimum of 95 points.

The Flyers’ Road Ahead

Looking at the schedule, there’s nothing clearly favorable about the task ahead. The remaining games are almost evenly split between home and away games (15 home, 14 away). The Flyers have fared slightly better at home so far this season, posting a 13-10-3 record to their 11-13-3 road line. It’s important to note that one of those home games will be rather irregular, because it’s the 2019 Stadium Series matchup outside at Lincoln Financial Field against the Pittsburgh Penguins later this month.

Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby
The Flyers will see their division rivals from Pittsburgh three more times, including once outside. (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

Likewise, the quality of competition is slightly weighted towards teams currently in playoff position (17 in, 12 out as of today). That includes a steady diet of division rivals, including three meetings each with the top three teams in the Metropolitan Division – the New York Islanders, Washington Capitals and the Penguins. They’ll also be treated to a game each against the explosive Maple Leafs and league-leading Tampa Bay Lightning.

They do see the lone vulnerable team in an Eastern playoff spot once more, in a Feb. 28 game in Columbus that could represent a four-point swing in the standings. And if the Hurricanes surge into that final berth, the Flyers will have two shots at them in the last two weeks of the season.

Embracing a Mindset

The Flyers can’t control their schedule or what the Blue Jackets, Hurricanes and Sabres do with their own: They can only control what they do on the ice. For now, they do have a path, however narrow. To get there, they’ll have to win–a lot.

And if they’re to lose, they better make sure it’s not in regulation. If there’s one thing from the Dave Hakstol era of Flyers hockey that the team might want to carry through to the end of this season, it’s their predilection for overtime play. Between 2015 and 2018, more than 30 percent of their games required an extra session–most in the league. They’re slightly off-pace through their first 53 games, having played beyond 60 minutes 11 times (20.7 percent).

Philadelphia Flyers interim head Scott Gordon
Philadelphia Flyers interim head Scott Gordon (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker, File)

But that’s about all that should stick around from the past coach’s philosophy. Right now, the team is proving that it can piece together wins, especially in the sort of tight, low-scoring games that they’ll need if they want to earn their first back-to-back postseason appearances since 2012. The man who’s coach now, interim Scott Gordon, best summed up the mindset the team has to have.

“The biggest thing right now for us is just to make sure we don’t worry about the eighth-place seed, we don’t worry about the team that is 10 points in front of us, we just worry about what’s in front of us immediately,” he recently said, according to NBC Sports Philadelphia. “Whether it’s the 10th-place team, the ninth-place team, we just worry about that team. Try to get above them.”