The Philadelphia Flyers have played excellent hockey so far in March and have extended their record this month to 8-1-1. The Flyers struggled with consistency for much of the middle of the season but have seemed to find their stride lately. The combination of strong goaltending, timely scoring, and tireless effort has vaulted Philadelphia back into the race for the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference leads. Their only loss in regulation over the last couple of weeks came against the Devils on the tail end of back-to-back games which saw the team have to travel from Toronto to New Jersey and play a game in less than 24 hours.
Ilya Bryzgalov started a stretch of immaculate shutout hockey at home against Florida on March 8th en route to a 5-0 drubbing of the Panthers. The terrific play by the backstop continued March 10th in Toronto. The game went through all of regulation and overtime scoreless leading up to the Flyers 1-0 victory in the shootout. The aforementioned travel nightmare lent itself to a sluggish performance in NJ the next day which saw Sergie Bobrovsky spell Bryzgalov for the only time in the last 16 contests. Philadelphia got quick revenge on the Devils when Bryzgalov was back in net for the second game of the home-and-home series. He kept the score sheet clean again as the Flyers won 3-0. Two days later Bryzgalov posted two more scoreless periods in Long Island against the Isles before relenting two tallies in the third period. The team preserved a 3-2 victory amidst a new Flyers record for consecutive shutout minutes set by Bryz.
The Flyers emerged from this past crucial weekend against two major rivals with a possible 3 out of 4 points in the standings. On Saturday afternoon in Boston the Bruins raced out to an early 2-0 lead in the first period. Philadelphia battled back in the form of a Matt Read powerplay tip-in half way through the second and continued pressure lead to another deflection goal by Jake Voracek with less than five minutes to play in regulation. The Bruins eventually won the game in a shootout but the never-say-die effort that has become a staple of the Laviolette era Flyers was displayed once again. On Sunday the Flyers hosted cross-state rival Pittsburgh in Sidney Crosby’s first game against the Flyers in over a calendar year. Another slow start resulted in a similar 2-0 Pittsburgh lead after two periods. Kimmo Timonen blasted a shot past Marc-Andre Fluery just 31 seconds into the third period and ignited the team and the Wells Fargo Center crowd. A few minutes later Scott Hartnell took a slap pass from Claude Giroux and sent the puck top shelf for the equalizer. Hartnell shot another laser past Fluery with less than a second left in Overtime to complete the second impressive comeback in as many days.
- The Flyers top line of Scott Hartnell, Claude Giroux, and Jaromir Jagr have started clicking again and appear to have adjusted to being matched up against opposing team’s top defensive pairs. Hartnell has two game winning goals in the last three games and Giroux has seven points in the last seven games. Jagr looks to be skating stronger and moving with more fluidity after he was slowed by a hip injury recently. When this line has their mojo going they are one of the top units in the NHL and can be good enough to take over games and hopefully be the difference in a playoff series.
- It would be an understatement to say that Ilya Bryzgalov has rounded himself into playoff form. He is 8-0-1 and has only let in eleven goals in nine games for a ridiculously stingy 1.22 goals against average in March. You need consistently hot goaltending to make an extended run in the playoffs and the simple truth is that if Bryzgalov can maintain his level of play, the Flyers are good enough to beat anyone.
- During their current run of wins the Flyers have some quality victories over other Stanley Cup contenders such as Detroit and Pittsburgh. These games are the best way to gauge where your team is at because they are as close as you can get to simulating playoff quality action. If the Flyers can keep up their solid play over the final 10 games the team will be entering the post season with confidence and will be familiar with the formula to win tough games.
- The Flyers continue to struggle “getting up” for afternoon tilts this season. Despite the positive results from the back-to-back games this past weekend their overall record in games starting at 3pm or earlier is 4-8-2. A big part of their woes is not being able to start the first periods with enough juice. Considering that NBC will almost certainly schedule some afternoon games if the Flyers play a marquee playoff match-up with the Rangers or Penguins this is something that needs to be fixed.
- While Andrej Meszaros is sidelined 6-8 weeks for back surgery and Pavel Kubina is still sidelined with an undisclosed injury the Flyers third defensive pair consisting of rookies Brandon Manning and Erik Gustaffson has been a weak link. They can’t be trusted with any sort of big ice time and are quite frankly a liability out there against top teams such as Boston and Pittsburgh. Hopefully at least one of the veterans can get back for the playoffs.
- Ever since Bryzgalov has become a brick wall the Flyers offense have seemed to have lost their killer instinct. For the first three quarters of the season the team had to outscore opponents many nights to secure victories. Over the last month or so it’s been the complete opposite. Even when Bryzgalov isn’t posting shutouts he has often had to bail the team out during stretches of terrible play within games. The Flyers need to put it all together and find a way to score early, secure a lead, and let Bryz do his thing. That is the formula for success.
The grueling regular season is coming to a close. There are only 10 games left and teams all around the NHL are making their final push for positioning. Everyone is trying to implement their systems perfectly to prepare themselves for possible deep playoff runs. The Flyers are doing everything in their power to do the exact opposite of what happened to them last year. A mediocre end to the regular season resulted in a 7 game struggle in the first round against a lesser Buffalo team and a prompt four game shellacking at the hands of the eventual Cup Champion Bruins. By entering the playoffs with momentum the Flyers are certainly thinking about playing well into the month of June. The road will not be an easy one as there are a handful of Eastern conference teams with similar expectations. Players, coaches, and fans alike are surely chomping at the bit to get to the games that really matter. It’s going to be intense!
By: Brent Manara