Chris O'Reilly The Hockey Writers
The Flyers’ Playoff Threats
The Philadelphia Flyers showed some much-needed signs of life Sunday night, clawing their way back from a two-goal deficit to defeat the New York Islanders, 3-2, in overtime. Philly’s goals came courtesy of Wayne Simmonds, Ivan Provorov and Claude Giroux. Steve Mason was also sharp, stopping 36 out of 38 shots. The Flyers’ hard-fought victory was a sight for sore eyes, as it had been 10 days since the team last won a hockey game.
With Sunday night’s triumph, Philadelphia reclaimed the second wild-card spot in the East. It would serve them well, however, to rattle off a few wins in a row going forward.
As of Tuesday, Jan. 24, there are 11 Eastern Conference teams within eight points of one another, and the Flyers find themselves near the top of this pile. Some of these teams will drop off, some will surge and some will remain right where they are. But for each one of them, the playoffs may as well have already started, because they can ill-afford many more shortcomings.
Of these 11 teams, there are four that Flyers fans should pay close attention to over the next few weeks, as they are the most well-equipped to threaten Philadelphia’s playoff hopes.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Toronto has been one of the pleasant surprises in the NHL this season. Projected by many to finish somewhere at the bottom of the East, the upstart Leafs have kept themselves in contention thus far thanks to some high-flying offense and solid goaltending. Rookie Auston Matthews has made an immediate impact in his first season, and the ripple effect has carried over to the rest of the team.
Among those enjoying some of the best hockey of their careers are Nazem Kadri and James van Riemsdyk. Kadri netted his 20th goal last night against Calgary, tying his previous career high with almost half the season yet to be played. Likewise, van Riemsdyk (16 goals, 22 assists) appears poised to eclipse his previous best point total of 61.
Due to the relative youth of Toronto’s roster, the grind of an 82-game season could plausibly be expected to take its toll down the stretch. Those waiting for that to happen might not want to hold their breaths, however. Head coach Mike Babcock has weathered many a storm throughout his career, and if this team does drop off, it certainly won’t have anything to do with conditioning or a lack of focus.
The one thing that threatens to upend the Leafs’ late-season push is the sheer workload of goaltender Frederik Andersen. Andersen has started a staggering 38 of Toronto’s 45 games in net, and although not every team in the NHL is lucky enough to have two reliable goalies, it would be wise to get him some breaks late in the season.
Tampa Bay Lightning
There are teams who aren’t as good as their records suggest, and conversely, teams who aren’t as bad. The Tampa Bay Lightning, dead last in the Atlantic Division, are among the latter. Despite being hampered by injuries and some uncharacteristically shaky goaltending, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which the Lightning don’t put together a run late in the season.
It’s difficult to account for the loss of your best player, but Tampa has proven its ability to do so in the past. The Lightning took the Pittsburgh Penguins to seven games in the 2016 Eastern Conference Final despite missing Steven Stamkos for most of the postseason, and were even able to overcome the loss of Ben Bishop to make that series competitive in the first place.
Players like Jonathan Drouin, Victor Hedman, Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov stepped up then, and they’ve done their part this season as well with Stamkos once again missing a large portion of the schedule.
What’s inhibited the Lightning this season hasn’t been goal scoring, but rather goal prevention. Ben Bishop and Andrei Vasilevskiy have put up nearly identical numbers in net to the tune of a combined 21-22-5 record. Once again, it’s hard to think that one or both of these normally reliable goalies isn’t going to turn it on sometime in the near future.
Luckily for Tampa Bay, Stamkos is hopeful to return to action sometime in March, and the Atlantic Division is still very much up for grabs outside of the Montreal Canadiens. Despite their current standing, second place in the division is a very realistic possibility.
Ottawa is one of only two teams in the Atlantic Division with an actual winning record. Halfway through the season, it’s safe to assume that’s not a fluke. The Senators are in the catbird seat to clinch second place in the Atlantic, which would keep them from having to play Montreal or one of the Metro Division juggernauts in the first round of the postseason. Right now, that should be everybody’s goal in the Atlantic.
The Senators are a team full of players with their noses to the grindstone. Ottawa is among the NHL’s elite when it comes to goal prevention, but unlike many of the other teams in that category, they cannot consistently put up jaw-dropping offensive numbers. As a result, they have to rely on their ability to frustrate their opponents instead of outscoring them.
One statistic indicative of such a mindset is hits, and the Sens certainly get their money’s worth in that department. Ottawa ranks third in the NHL with 26.3 hits per game. What they lack in offensive firepower, they more than account for in the physical aspect of the game.
New York Islanders
Yes, that’s correct. The last-place, 19-win Islanders are a threat to supplant the Flyers as the eighth playoff team in the East. Why? Because they have John Tavares.
Tavares has four points (3G, 1A) in the three games since Jack Capuano was fired. In the one game in which he didn’t record a point (Sunday against the Flyers), he fired 10 shots on goal. He had not recorded more than six in any game prior to Sunday, and averaged just three in Capuano’s last five games at the helm. In three games under new head coach Doug Weight, Tavares is averaging 6.7.
While this is admittedly a small (and unsustainable) sample size, the limited evidence clearly suggests that one of the team’s new points of emphasis has been to get Tavares going. Of course he is not going to continue at such a high volume, but he won’t have to. Tavares has the Crosby-like ability to better those around him, and once he gets rolling, his teammates are going to feed off of it.
Moreover, Thomas Greiss has been outstanding in net this season, and has really turned it on of late. His save percentage dating back to Dec. 20 is .945, and the only reason that number isn’t even more impressive is because of a forgettable seven-goal game against the Hurricanes in that span.
The Islanders have a pretty brutal remaining schedule, so their battle is certainly of the uphill variety. But with a world-class captain and a red-hot goalie, they have what it takes to fight it. Don’t start shoveling dirt on this team just yet.
Others Receiving Votes
Despite sitting in third place in the Atlantic Division, the Boston Bruins just feel like a team that’s about to go hurtling off a cliff. The wheels are falling off one day at a time for this team, and Claude Julien’s future hangs in the balance. The Bruins will not make the playoffs.
There’s a lot at stake for the Detroit Red Wings as they try to avoid snapping a 25-year playoff streak in the same season they bid farewell to Joe Louis Arena. Nobody on the Red Wings wants their name associated with that archive of the team’s history, but Detroit has been riddled with injuries and has not gotten the kind of production they’ve come to expect from a number of their players. The Red Wings might finish last in the Atlantic Division.
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