RALEIGH, N.C. — As the regular season winds down and the Stanley Cup playoffs approach, it’s hard — no, downright impossible — to get a handle on the enigmatic Flyers.
They are maddening and exciting. They can score goals in bunches for a stretch, and then forget how to turn on the red light for weeks at a time.
They can beat the NHL elite on the road (see Tamps Bay, Vegas, Toronto, and Washington), and lose to non-playoff teams at the Wells Fargo Center (see Arizona, Vancouver, the Islanders, and Ottawa).
They can be downright dominating — remember their recent 10-0-2 stretch? — or very, very bad. There seems to be no middle ground. The Flyers dropped 10 straight early in the season, and, naturally, became just the fifth team in NHL history to immediately follow that kind of skid with a six-game winning streak.
Up. Down. Brilliant. Futile.
For all their flaws, the Flyers are the type of team opponents should fear in a playoff series because if they bring their “A” game and they have steady goaltender Brian Elliott back in the nets, they can be extremely tough to beat.
That is, if they find themselves playing in the postseason.
A little less than three weeks ago, it was unthinkable that the Flyers would not be competing in the Stanley Cup playoffs. They had beaten Montreal, 1-0, and made the long three-month climb from last place to first place in the Metropolitan Division.
“We’re not finished. We’re just getting started,” right winger Travis Konecny said at the time, back when one analytics website said the Flyers had a 99 percent chance to make the playoffs.
And then the “bad” Flyers reappeared. The new goaltender, Petr Mrazek, showed the holes that plagued his career in Detroit. The defensive coverage became shoddy, and the defense showed how much it misses the injured Robert Hagg. The scoring, except for MVP candidate Claude Giroux, became almost nonexistent.
Heading into Saturday’s game against Carolina, the Flyers, plagued by slow starts and inconsistent special-teams’ play, had lost seven of eight games since moving atop the Metropolitan Division.
Now their sights aren’t on a Metro title but just qualifying for the playoffs.
They went into the weekend with 11 games left. Those games will determine whether the Flyers’ three months of excellence go down the drain.
“We’re right there, so obviously if we can take care of business down the stretch here, we’ll be fine,” defenseman Andrew MacDonald said.
If they do get into the playoffs, they will breathe a collective sigh of relief and could be a dangerous team, like they were after earning a berth on the last day of the regular season in 2009-10.
If they miss the playoffs for the third time in four years, this season won’t compare to the Phillies’ infamous 1964 collapse — they blew a 6 1/2-game first-place lead with 12 games remaining — but it will be close.
Florida was 16 points behind the Flyers on Feb. 26. Entering Saturday, the Panthers were on a 16-4-1 run and had climbed to within four points of the Flyers with three games in hand.
Four teams — the Flyers, Columbus, Florida, and New Jersey — are battling for the final three playoff spots. Other teams are lurking but seem too far behind. (An aside: If the Flyers finish as the top wild-card and Washington wins the Metro, those two teams would meet in the first round. That is a matchup the Flyers are capable of stealing.)
For the Flyers, getting into the playoffs would be an invaluable experience for young players such as Nolan Patrick, Konecny, Hagg, Shayne Gostisbehere, Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim, and Oskar Lindblom, among others. The intensity is amped and every shift is magnified. It would be beneficial if those players could taste the postseason, and it would prepare them for the days when Carter Hart, Morgan Frost, Phil Myers, and some free agents arrive and the team is a legitimate Cup contender.
Gostisbehere, a glass-is-half-full kind of guy, doesn’t think there is reason to panic. The Flyers, he said after Thursday’s 5-3 loss to hungrier Columbus, still control their own destiny.
“The last time I checked,” he said, “we’re still sitting pretty.”
But are they sitting on the deck of the Titanic or in a comfy lounge chair on some tropical island?
Stay tuned for the answer.