The Flyers return to the ice on Wednesday night, but a good portion of the rest of the NHL will return on Tuesday from the All-Star break.
The All-Star break is essentially both the final measuring stick on where teams are as the stretch run begins and also the final extensive break teams will have for the rest of the season.
It is a grind from here. The Flyers have 33 games left on their schedule, starting with Wednesday’s, and they will all be played within a 67-day span. And given the way the standings look, each game will hold significant meaning.
As the Flyers enter the final 33 games, they currently hold a playoff spot, tied with New Jersey with 56 points and technically holding the second wildcard spot. One point separates them from both the Rangers and Islanders. Carolina is also lurking just four points behind.
Of course, there isn’t much of a gap the other way either. The Flyers are not only tied with New Jersey for a wildcard spot, but sit one point behind Pittsburgh and Columbus for second and third in the division.
It’s about as close a race as it gets.
That’s a double-edged sword for the Flyers. On one hand, a singular loss, like the one they had against Tampa Bay to enter the All-Star break, doesn’t completely extinguish the chances of making the playoffs. In fact, it does very little to that.
But a single loss, like last Thursday’s, can change the dynamic of the standings in an instant. For a brief moment before the conclusion of Thursday’s game, with New Jersey having already lost, the Flyers were technically in second place in the Metropolitan Division. As soon as the game went final, they were back behind the Devils, who have one fewer game played as the tiebreaker. The Penguins and Blue Jackets also won their games on Thursday, vaulting past the Flyers.
In a span of six hours, the Flyers went from having a chance at second place in the division to second wildcard.
So the margin of error is already tight as it is. Now factor in the number of times the Flyers will meet the teams they are competing against in the standings. Seven of the Flyers 14 games from now until the end of February are against Metropolitan Division opponents. The Flyers will play 15 games in March, their most of any month this season. Seven of those games will be against Metro opponents. And in April, with four games in seven days to close the season, the final three come against teams that could be separated in the playoff picture by the margin of victory.
In other words, the Flyers play the Rangers on the final day of the season on April 7, and it could be 2010 all over again with a winner-take-all game. That’s how close this race is at the moment.
There is a lot of time for things to change. The Flyers aren’t the only team with essentially no margin for error. Any of these teams could hit a losing streak that takes them completely out of the picture just like that.
The thing for the Flyers is that they already had one such streak, losing 10 straight games from mid-November and early December. Even a streak half as long at this point would be enough to take the Flyers completely out of the picture. An uphill climb like that is just too steep with the final quarter of the season closing in quickly.
The Flyers deserve a lot of credit for even climbing out of that hole to begin with, but their work can’t stop there if the playoffs are the goal. The result of one game could make the difference, leaving no margin for error on their playoff push in the stretch run of the season.