March is usually is one of the busier months of the year on the sports calendar. The turn from winter to spring is accompanied by the likes of spring training baseball and the beginning of the MLB regular season as well as other notable events on the sports calendar such as the start the NFL free agency, the home stretch of the NBA season, as well as the excitement that is NCAA basketball’s March Madness. Each event I mentioned is special in its own way but the fact is right now the hometown hockey team is on a roll like no other in the NHL and the Flyers deserve your attention as they come down the home stretch fighting for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
We all remember how awful the start of this season was. The Flyers lost their first 3 games and then immediately fired long time head coach Peter Laviolette. Since that time Laviolette’s replacement Craig Berube has had this team going in the right direction. Sure we’ve seen this team have some horrific losses up to this point but somehow Berube has been able to get them to bounce back in a major way after each and every one of those blowouts.
When we all looked at the schedule going into March it was pretty clear to most experts this month would make or break the Flyers. Currently they’re playing a stretch of 12 games against 12 teams all currently in the post-season in their respective conferences. You couldn’t have asked for a much tougher task for a young team that’s been fighting each and every night to remain in the playoff picture but this team so far has risen to the occasion.
The month started with a game against the division rival New York Rangers where the team was able to get a win. From there they won both contests of a home and home series against the Washington Capitals who are currently on the outside of the playoffs looking in but aren’t far off from a playoff spot. After Washington the Flyers went north of the border where they lost in overtime to the Maple Leafs, another playoff team, before coming home to lose to the division rival Devils.
For those of you unaware the NHL playoff format was revised this season. Under the old format there were 3 divisions with each division winner placing into the top 3 of the conference from most points to least. Following the division winners would be the 5 remaining teams in the conference with the most points. But under the revised format the conferences aligned divisions so now instead of 3 they are now made up of 2 divisions. The top 3 teams in each division would have an automatic berth to the postseason while the 2 remaining teams in the conference with the most points would advance as a wildcard. Based on the new format it’s important the Flyers stay in the top three of their division because a wildcard berth will most likely have the Flyers matched up with one of the top two teams in the first round against Boston or Pittsburgh.
After all of that drama to start the month the Flyers still found themselves clinging to a wild card spot before heading into a weekend home and home showdown with the hated cross state rival Pittsburgh Penguins. Most would have been happy to see them win one of these games but instead the Flyers came out and demolished the Penguins winning both games. For sure the Flyers would cool down in there next contest against the defending Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks in what would have been the first game of a home stand against the top Western Conference teams. Instead of laying down for the Champs the Flyers came out and dominated. During that game they had several shots go off the post and in the end the Flyers notched the victory with a last second overtime game winning goal by the captain Claude Giroux.
Giroux has been a lightning rod for this team entering the stretch run and it’s clear the Flyers are heading in the right direction because of his play. Giroux is the hottest player in the NHL since December 11 racking up 51 points. He’s fourth in the league in scoring and has had nothing short of a profound effect on the team during the second half of the season so far. His leadership has taken huge strides during this stretch as other players on the Flyers have been vocal about how effective he’s been on the bench during games assisting teammates with fixing mistakes and getting on them about things like penalties. Giroux has grown into a captain that demands perfection from his teammates and it’s that dedication to perfection that will continue to help motivate this team down the stretch and hopefully into the playoffs.
The “deadly dozen” as it’s been coined continued following the thrilling Blackhawks game against the Dallas Stars a team fighting for a playoff spot out West. At the time of this article being written the Flyers beat the Stars in another close contest. Following the matchup with the Stars the Flyers will take on the top team in the NHL in the St. Louis Blues. After the Blues the Flyers will have matchups against the Kings, Rangers, Maple Leafs, Bruins, Blues again, Blue Jackets, and will finish it off against the Bruins once more before finally getting a matchup with a losing team the Sabres.
No other team in the NHL will have a tougher stretch of games down the home stretch of the season than the Flyers but so far they are rising to the occasion. The frustrating part of the whole thing is the Eastern conference is so jam packed that one or two losses in a row by the Flyers and you could be on the outside looking in and possibly not even make the postseason. Every team is so close together in the standings it’s important not to reflect on any victories for long and stay focused on the game at hand. It’s safe to say though if the Flyers come out of this stretch of a dozen games still holding a playoff spot in the standings they’ll get in and they’ll be dangerous. The NHL truly a league where anyone can win once they get into the postseason. We saw it a few seasons back when the 7th seeded LA Kings got hot at the right time and went all the way to win their first Stanley Cup. It’s been done many times before when a team gets a hot goalie in the postseason and the team scores anything can happen. We still have a about a month to go in the regular season but if March is any indication Flyer fans are in for a thrilling ride down the homestretch. Hopefully I’ll be following up next month with a Flyers post-season preview but until then sit back and enjoy the ride.