There’s a great feel-good photo of the Flyers, sticks raised as they salute their fans for sitting through the rain at Lincoln Financial Field, after an epic late comeback that produced a 4-3 overtime win over the hated Pittsburgh Penguins a couple of weeks ago.
That victory, most likely, will be the pinnacle of their turbulent season, and their mini-version of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
But, with apologies to the fans who were clamoring for the Flyers to keep losing to increase their chances of drafting star-in-the-making Jack Hughes, give this team credit for at least making the last few months of the season entertaining — and meaningful.
Two months ago, the Flyers were 31st — dead last — in the NHL in points. That created a must-win situation, or close to it, every single game.
Instead of caving to that type of pressure, the Flyers embraced it. Since then, they have huffed and puffed and won a vast majority of their games to get their playoff deficit, which was at 16 points on Jan. 15, to a more manageable (but unrealistic) number.
“Every game has been like a playoff game,” defenseman Robert Hagg said Thursday. “It motivates you to go out and play your best. I think it keeps everyone on their toes because you know you have to win, no matter what."
Travis Konecny agreed.
“You know everything is important: every game, every shift, every decision you make,” the coming-of-age right winger said. “It holds you accountable and makes us play the right way.”
“I think it’s helped us because we’re playing more as a team,” Hagg said.
The Flyers are on a 16-4-2 run entering Saturday’s game against the Islanders. They enter the weekend seven points out of a playoff spot with 15 games left — and it appears it will take a 12-2-1 spurt to play in the postseason.
“Obviously, we made some adjustments,” said center Nolan Patrick, whose team’s goals-against average has dropped significantly since interim coach Scott Gordon installed a 1-3-1 neutral-zone forecheck around the time the Flyers went on a hot streak. “I think a lot of guys’ play has gotten better, and I think we got our confidence back. That’s kind of what’s gone on during that streak.”
Knowing every game has been critical the last two months could have made the Flyers squeeze their sticks tighter.
“I don’t think that’s stressful. That’s fun,” Patrick said. “That’s the way hockey should be. Obviously when every game is a big game, it’s a lot easier to get up for. Those are the games that, personally I love playing in.”
“It hasn’t felt like a strain,” defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere said of the keep-winning-or-make-the-season-meaningless predicament that has been hanging over the Flyers, “because our mentality is to just take it a game at a time. We’ve just focused on what’s in our control.”
Like last year, that urgency hasn’t always been there during a season in which the Flyers have seen their general manager, an assistant GM, their head coach, and an assistant coach fired.
The good teams find ways to be consistent for 82 games, not just a few months.
This summer, general manager Chuck Fletcher, who will be armed with lots of cap space, will try to add the pieces that will make that happen.
From here, he needs to add a second-line center, a sniper, a first-pairing defenseman, and a dependable goalie (re-signing Cam Talbot?) to back up Carter Hart.
The good news is that the second-half run has shown he has many quality pieces in place, and that the young players — including Patrick, Oskar Lindblom, Travis Sanheim, Konecny, a revived Ivan Provorov, Phil Myers, and Hart — look as good as projected.
Most important, for the first time in eons, the Flyers have their goalie of the future. And present.
That’s an advantage Ron Hextall didn’t have during his GM tenure, and it makes this offseason so much more intriguing.