(Kate Frese/SB Nation)
The Flyers are back on the ice on Thursday night for another set of back-to-back games on a Florida road trip.
Every game for the Flyers is important from here on out if they want to be the playoff team they say they are. But putting the two remaining games in 2017 aside, the Flyers most crucial stretch in defining their season will be the games played in January.
By the time the Flyers hit the ice for their first game of 2018, they will have played 38 games, almost half of the 82-game season. That’s a really good time to step back and look at the path the season has taken to this point and what still needs to be done.
Through 36 games, with two still left on the schedule in December, the Flyers are sitting in last in the Metropolitan Division with 38 points and are six points out of a playoff spot. On paper, it looks bad and the forecast for the rest of the season looks bleak.
But the Flyers have also gone through extreme ups and downs. They put themselves near the bottom of the conference with a 10-game losing streak and have since rebounded with a six-game winning streak and wins in seven of their last 11 games. At the very least, it has put them back on the bubble of playoff teams in the Eastern Conference.
One reason the Flyers can keep hope in a possible playoff push is that they really have yet to see how they stack up against their own division and conference. In their first 36 games, the Flyers have only played five games against divisional opponents and 13 games against Eastern Conference opponents.
The key to gaining ground in the standings isn’t just winning games, but winning against the teams that are vying for the same playoff spot you are. These games within a division are essentially four-point games, and the Flyers haven’t had many.
That’s why January is so important. The Flyers essentially took themselves out of the race and clawed their way back in over the course of November and December. Now they have to control what they can and handle the task in front of them against teams within the Metro.
In January, they will get their chance. Of the 12 games the Flyers play on January, 11 are against Eastern Conference opponents and seven are against Metro opponents.
The Flyers are also going to be tested by short spurts of many games and long breaks off. For one, the Flyers are coming off a four-day break as they take the ice on Thursday night in Florida. They will have their mandatory bye week from Jan. 8-12. The NHL All-Star break also hits from Jan. 26-30, giving the Flyers another five-day pause.
Ultimately, 24 points in the standings are at stake in January, but in reality, it is much more than that. The Flyers face the Pittsburgh Penguins once, the New York Islanders once, the New York Rangers once and have two games apiece against New Jersey and Washington, all teams they are chasing in the standings.
This will still be an uphill climb for the Flyers. In the five games they have played against the Metro, the team is 1-0-4 and while getting points in all five games is great, the Flyers can’t afford any points to the opposition in these four-point games.
Additionally, the division has already been so competitive. The Flyers are last in the Metro, but 11 points off the division-leading Devils and nine off of second place Washington and Columbus. Both of those teams have played two more games than the Flyers.
The Flyers were also the only Metro team not in action when the NHL resumed play out of the Christmas break on Wednesday and all seven of their division foes claimed points in the standings in Wednesday’s action, including five teams coming away with wins.
It’s a tall task, but this is where the Flyers get to prove that all the playoff talk wasn’t lip service. It starts with two good games in Florida. But it is the 12 games in January that will define how the rest of the season may go from there.