Hayes: Flyers swimming quickly upstream

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Sam Gagner is swarmed by teammates after his shootout goal against the Capitals.

APPARENTLY, swimming upstream is only exhausting if you're not making headway.

In the Flyers' case, they're moving right along. In fact, the further upstream they travel from playoff irrelevance to the playoff fringes, the stronger they get. If they make it to their goal, they can turn round and use the current to push them through the playoffs.

"If a team has been in this situation for 20-plus games, like us, where we've have the water right here," said defenseman Mark Streit, his hand at his neck, "it helps. If we get there."

Sixteen games ago, the Flyers were drowning. A mediocre and inconsistent club, they had lost a game in Carolina that left them five points out of the playoffs. More significantly, they sat behind four other teams. They faced a six-game homestand. Jake Voracek said they needed to collect 10 of the 12 possible points.

That triggered something.

Not only did the Flyers collect those 10 points, but they also collected 24 of the next 32 points in play. Then, Wednesday night, they rallied for an improbable, 2-1 shootout victory over the visiting Capitals. They are in the final wild-card spot, with 89 points, two more than Detroit, and with a game in hand.

They had been swimming upstream for five weeks. They looked drained in their overtime win against the Jets on Monday; so, it follows, all of this anxiety and effort had to be wearing them down.

Or, maybe not.

"Yeah, it takes a lot of energy from you. It's every day, every night," Claude Giroux said on Wednesday afternoon. "Even if you're not playing, like last night, it's a lot of excitement and anxiety. That's why we play hockey, though. For the rush."

"I don't see it as draining," Streit said. "When you see how much closer you are to a playoff spot, it gives you positive energy. But, obviously, you'd like to be a few points ahead."

They might have the cushion to which he referred, but while the team always seemed to have the talent, it never played well enough often enough.

Then Voracek issued his challenge.

"We started to have less hesitation in our game," Giroux said.

"You could see: The quality, the level of our play, went much higher," Voracek said. "We paid more attention to detail, especially in important parts of the games. The goalies got really hot and stole a couple of games for us. It's carried us through now.

"We've basically been playing playoff hockey the last 16 games."

They weren't ready for this sort of strain the first two-thirds of the season.

It took time to adjust to the system and the personality of rookie head coach Dave Hakstol. It took time to adjust to the reconfigured roster. It took time to grow comfortable with the regime of second-year general manager Ron Hextall, who has preached patience, and practiced it. He stood pat at the trade deadline, which, for the Flyers, happens about as often as a total eclipse of the sun.

If this edition of the Flyers sounds familiar, well, it should. In 2010 the Flyers stayed silent at the trade deadline, then rode a new coach and a reconfigured roster through a white-knuckled, late-season run that sent them to the playoffs and finished at the Stanley Cup final.

"Every game mattered," Giroux said. "We had momentum. We were already playing playoff hockey in our heads. We just kept the ball rolling. We didn't have to ramp up the intensity. It was already there. And 'Richie' was there, obviously."

Giroux spoke of Mike Richards, then the Flyers' captain, now with the Capitals. The end of the seasons weren't identical - by the season finale, the Flyers had fallen from fourth place to a tie for the last slot - but pressure mounted several weeks before the last few games.

"You're playing meaningful games for a month, maybe two months beforehand," Richards said. "It is taxing on the body. You get no rest. You have to play like they're playoff games, so you're really ramping up for every game. So, it's not only physically taxing, but mentally, as well."

The taxation won't end until the season ends. After Wednesday night's victory, the Flyers finish the season with three sets of back-to-back games. They play their final four games over five days.

They relish the chance.

"Sure, we still have a lot of heavy games, a lot of back-to-backs," Streit said, and then he smiled. "I like it."


hayesm@phillynews.com

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