There is something almost magical happening in Philadelphia. Hockey has become very relevant again and very quickly. Another sweep of a home-and-home against a bubble team trying to grab a place in the playoff race only further secured that the Flyers will achieve their first goal of being one of the 16 teams with a chance at the Stanley Cup following the final 17 games on the schedule.
With an eight-point margin to the first team out of the playoff picture, a Carolina team they will face later this week, they can essentially solidify their place with just one more solid week, then spend the remaining games trying to lock down one of the top spots in the division.
The back-to-back wins, capped off by Sunday’s 5-3 defeat of the Rangers, has the Flyers in second place in the Metropolitan Division with a three-point margin to third and just three points back of the division-leading Capitals, the next opponent on the schedule.
It’s fitting that this is where we are in the Flyers schedule. Back on Jan. 8, the Flyers woke up in a tie for fifth place in the Metro with 50 points, which also tied for the final wildcard spot. They were set to face the Washington Capitals that night, a team 15 points ahead in the standings and leading the entire league. They had just finished a 1-4-1 road trip with four straight losses to close it out. It felt like the early successes and solid groundwork to a playoff season were fading away as the Flyers were marred in one of those snowball streaks that was only getting bigger.
The Flyers claimed a 3-2 win in regulation against the NHL’s best team that night and snapped the losing streak. They haven’t had a losing streak since.
No one could have predicted it at the time, but it will be looked at as the start of a really magical run. The Flyers are 16-5-1 since the end of that road trips, all of their losses isolated.
When the Flyers completed that win over Washington in January and snapped the losing streak, Alain Vigneault wanted to celebrate.
“At this time, right now, I’m going home tonight and I’m going to have a martini,” Vigneault said after the win. “I’m going to relax, I’m going to enjoy the win and I’m going to get back to that.”
Since then, Vigneault has had his share of martinis. The Flyers went into the break with a 3-0 win over the Penguins and Vigneault made mentions of the drink of choice again.
Last Saturday, after a 4-2 win over the Jets, Vigneault was asked if the goals for the season had changed as they moved up the standings. Again, Vigneault brought his signature drink into the mix.
“My goal right now, leaving this stage, is to not have a martini and to tell my guys to focus on San Jose next game,” Vigneault said. As he walked off the stage and behind the curtain, he yelled out, “but I will have a martini!”
Once again on Sunday, with another win over the Rangers, the third of the season against his former team, Vigneault was ready to celebrate. “Right now, my message...there’s a martini coming,” Vigneault said. “There’s a half day of work for the coaches tomorrow. Our players are going to re-energize. We’re going to have a good practice, get ourselves to Washington and expect a real good performance.”
Vigneault has been down this road before. He’s taken teams on playoff runs. He knows the right mindset to approaching the playoff race.
But for the Flyers, this is foreign territory, at least in the last decade. There will likely be no late-season push to just be part of the show. The games down the stretch this season will matter for an entirely different reason, to see where the Flyers finish in the rankings and what that will mean for their first-round matchup.
When Vigneault took the job as Flyers head coach, he noted that he wanted to be a guide for the players. Now, more than ever, the Flyers need to take on the same attitude as their bench boss.
It’s easy to get caught up in the hype at this time of year. With their two wins this weekend, the Flyers are more comfortably in the playoff picture than they have been all season. With 17 games to go, they could certainly set their sights on catching Washington for the division lead, being just three points back. But it can be harmful to a team to think that far ahead, to think of the “what ifs” and have visions of a division title. It is staying in the moment that matters the most.
“With our group right now, one of the things we have done well is stay in the moment and stay focused on the task at hand,” Vigneault said after practice on Saturday. “Our business tomorrow is to get ready for the Rangers and make sure we play the right way. You don’t want to get caught thinking about the next game. You have to really focus on one game at a time. It’s a tough league. Everybody’s good. You have to get yourself ready and get in the right mindset.”
“To be honest, we can’t afford to be complacent at all,” James van Riemsdyk said after Saturday's practice. “You look at how close it is, you’re five points from first place, maybe less than that now, and you’re five points from being out of the playoffs. You can’t afford to take your foot off the gas until you clinch a spot.
With a quick start, the Flyers emerged with a 4-0 lead early in the second, and though things certainly got close down the stretch, a strong start enabled the Flyers to claim another victory. Even within games, the Flyers are staying in the moment. If they give up the first goal, they set the focus on getting the next goal. If they grab a two-goal lead going to the third, they focus on locking things down.
This mindset has the Flyers challenging for a division title in the final stretch run of the regular season. If they can achieve that goal, or at least secure home ice in the first round of the playoffs, you can bet there will be a martini coming for the head coach to celebrate the moment before focusing on a playoff run.