It was becoming a matter of when and not if for the Flyers -- when would they lock up their spot in the playoffs officially. With 13 games to go after a 2-0 loss to the Boston Bruins, the Flyers were still comfortably in the playoff picture, two points ahead of the Pittsburgh Penguins for second place in the Metro and just one point back of the division-leading Washington Capitals.
It wasn’t just a matter of when the Flyers would clinch a playoff spot, but if they would also surpass the Capitals down the stretch and actually win the division, their first since the 2010-11 season. That is just one of the things that feels taken away at this point.
The NHL’s regular season was scheduled to end last Saturday and the Stanley Cup Playoffs would have started two days ago on Wednesday. The Flyers would have not only been there, but were starting to feel they had something special brewing.
“We were definitely feeling ourselves there for a little bit. We had some good swagger,” Kevin Hayes said in a conference call last week. “We had some good confidence. We weren’t overconfident. That’s our leadership group. They kind of set a standard. It’s a weird dynamic. I think everyone on our team brings their own leadership into that locker room, whether it’s an older guy or younger guy. A lot of people lead in different ways. I think everyone has completely bought into our system.”
For a lot of players, this would have been their first taste of playoff experience. For others, it may not have been their first series, but perhaps their first where the team was viewed as a contender.
“That’s what we play all year for,” Scott Laughton said in a conference call on Tuesday. “I think that’s what a lot of guys are thinking, especially here in Philly. We want to play hockey. We want a chance to win the Stanley Cup. I think any chance we can do that and logistics-wise where we can play. I think first and foremost is the safety of everyone. If we can get past all of this and come out stronger, hopefully we can get something done where we can play. I know, especially in Philly, guys definitely want to play and have a chance of winning the Cup.”
For second-year goalie Carter Hart, this has especially been a whirlwind. Hart helped breathe some new life into last year’s team, eventually putting them back into the playoff picture before the season ultimately fizzled out. This season, he has been at the forefront of the team’s most successful stretch. The loss to Boston snapped a personal seven-game winning streak for Hart as his numbers continued to improve to rank right up there with the best in the league.
At 21, Hart has done a lot in his career already, playing in two gold medal games at World Juniors, winning gold once and making a quick transition to the NHL at a position that commonly requires a longer development path. The chance to make the playoffs and be the relied-upon netminder is a dream that is currently on hold.
“For sure, I was definitely excited to play a playoff game hopefully this year. It’s every kid’s dream to play in the Stanley Cup playoffs,” Hart said in a conference call on Thursday. “Hopefully we can get that chance still coming up, depending on the circumstances here.
“It sucks that we’re not playing hockey right now. There’s bigger things going on right now in the world. Everybody’s in the same boat. We all have to try and do our part. I know everybody that’s working on the front line, all medical workers, hospital workers, essential service workers, they are all doing great jobs stepping up for us. We have to do our part here and stay inside. Just try to stay healthy and beat this thing, so that we can all resume to our normal everyday lives.”
There are a number of different possibilities being considered to try to get the NHL season back underway, whether it is to complete the regular season or to just hold the playoffs and still award the Stanley Cup. Hart said that no matter what the format is, players will be ready to return whenever the league can determine it is safe to do so.
“You hear a ton of rumors out there, but you can’t really know what’s true and what’s not,” Hart said. “I think when the time comes or the decision comes, us as professional athletes have to make sure we find a way to stay ready now. When that time does come, we’re prepared, no matter what the format is.”
One thing that doesn’t seem possible at this point is finding a way for teams to resume their seasons in their home arenas. The idea of the playoffs without fans or being played in neutral sites will certainly be a disappointment, especially in a place like Philadelphia, starving for some successful playoff hockey and to see the Flyers get on a run.
That is not lost on the players, who have certainly been aware of the energy and excitement that was building at Wells Fargo Center. Even if the ultimately goal is to just return to play and get the chance at the Stanley Cup, it will not be the same away from home.
“Philly’s always had a pretty great fan base in all their sports,” Hart said. “For us this year down the stretch, they were definitely really coming out and showing their support. It definitely was an electric building to play in down the stretch.”