Flyers GM Ron Hextall chose not to make moves at the trade deadline, and he may have been right to do so if his team can sneak into the post-season. Philadelphia is three points out with two games in hand, but their schedule could trip them up.
Nearly two weeks ago at the trade deadline, the Philadelphia Flyers didn’t make a single move. GM Ron Hextall stood pat, with his only action being a three-year contract extension for free agent-to-be Michael Raffl. Looking much the same as they did for the 62 games preceding the deadline, the Flyers entered the home stretch of the season.
“We’ve said this all along — if we could make ourselves better today and not hurt our future, we’re all for it,” Hextall told CSN Philadelphia’s Greg Paone post-deadline. “Nothing came up that made sense. There was a lot of conversation, just like with every other team. You never get too much of a sense of being close. There’s certain things you talk about over and over, so you believe it. But in the end, nothing made sense.”
The thought was that by standing pat, the Flyers had possibly sealed their post-season fate. Sure, they were only three points out of a playoff spot, but the next closest team, the rival Pittsburgh Penguins, had a game in hand and had looked stronger with almost each passing game under new coach Mike Sullivan. The Boston Bruins, too, were looking good. The Detroit Red Wings were far enough ahead that they weren’t a target.
As luck would have it, though, the Flyers went out and won on Feb. 29. And though they dropped their next contest, they’ve won their past two games and have stayed right in the playoff hunt. Now, with a month left in the season, it seems foolish to rule the Flyers out of the Eastern Conference playoff race just yet.
Thanks in large part to the performances of the Penguins and Red Wings since the break, the Flyers have been able to stay in the race. Since the deadline, the Penguins have been a .500 team with a 3-3-0 record while the Red Wings have had a tough time, dropping three in a row before finally getting back on track Thursday with a comeback win over the Winnipeg Jets to pull to 2-3-0 since deadline day.
Because of those performances, and paired with the Flyers’ 3-1-0 performance since Hextall chose to stick with his current group, Philadelphia is still a mere three points out of a playoff spot in the East. Unlike before the deadline, though, the Flyers are now the ones with games in hand. In fact, by the time games end Friday night, it’s possible the Flyers could be one point out of a playoff spot with one game in hand on both the Red Wings and Penguins.
A big part of the Flyers’ ability to keep pace is that they’ve had absolutely smothering performances since the deadline. In each of their past three games, the Flyers have had more than a fair run of play. In their past three games, Philadelphia has had 5-on-5 shot attempts for percentages of 53.7 percent in a loss to Edmonton, 61.4 percent in a victory over Columbus and a dominating 66.7 percent performance in a victory over Tampa Bay. It’s a small sample size, no doubt, but Philadelphia has been improving since the start of 2016.
In their 29 games since Jan. 1, the Flyers have a shot attempts for percentage of 51.1 while maintaining a solid 101.1 PDO — combined shooting and save percentage. And while normally that would seem due for regression any second, over the course of the season it has actually helped Philadelphia balance out the negative puck luck they’d gotten earlier on.
A large part of the Flyers staying in the race has been the play of Claude Giroux, Brayden Schenn and the 1A-1B tandem of Michal Neuvirth and Steve Mason. Since the start of 2016, Schenn is playing the best hockey of his career with 15 goals and 30 points in 29 games, while Giroux continues to show why he’s the leader of the Flyers with a six-goal, 28-point performance of his own over 26 games. As for Neuvirth and Mason, when one falters, the other has been there to pick up the slack, no better example of which has been Mason’s past two starts following an ugly outing by Neuvirth against the Oilers. Mason has gone 2-0-0 with two goals against and a .946 save percentage since Neuvirth allowed four goals to Edmonton.
The Flyers are going to have to work with a schedule that will do them no favors, but also allow them the chance to determine their own fate. Adding up the point totals of the opponents the three potential wild-card teams — the Flyers, Penguins and Red Wings — have, the schedule looks like it may be able to trip Philadelphia up if they’re not careful. The Flyers have the second-most difficult schedule of the two teams, with their opponents having an average of 75.8 points heading into the weekend. The Penguins have the most difficult schedule with an average of 83.6 points per opponent and the Red Wings will have the easiest go the rest of the way with remaining opponents averaging 67.1 points this season.
The most important stretch of the schedule for any of the teams, though, will be a five-game run the Flyers have to end the campaign. From game No. 78 to 82, Philadelphia will have a home-and-home set with Pittsburgh and host Detroit. If the Flyers can keep pace and pick up points in each of those games, Hextall’s decision not to mess with his group could end with what some would consider an unexpected post-season berth and give Philadelphia a chance at going on a playoff run.
(All advanced statistics via War-On-Ice)