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March 23, 2016

Playoff run starts early – both literally and figuratively – for Flyers

The Flyers season has arrived at the unexpected final countdown of 10 games, a neat package of must-watch TV featuring dramatic head-to-head matchups against the Detroit Red Wings, New York Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins (twice).

Imagine if the Eagles season was compressed into a single month and you would have a sense of what the Flyers and their fans have been living through these past few weeks. It is a whirlwind of “no room for error” and then finding there is another inch of breathing space before you take the next deep breath and head to the next game.

This is a bonus sequence for fans, most of whom were more than ready to live through the growing pains of this season and invest their hopes on a roster of prospects with great expectations for next season and well beyond.

Next up is Thursday night’s game in Colorado where the Avalanche and coach Patrick Roy are in the throes of their own nervous drive for the playoffs and will be missing their top two scorers Matt Duchene and Nathan MacKinnon who are out with knee injuries. Sounds like a great scenario, but check the recent history of teams missing big pieces and you will see the Pittsburgh Penguins in full flight after Evgeni Malkin left the lineup and the Flyers soaring while Jake Voracek was injured.

Connect the dots in your mind and you can see them finishing with the final playoff spot and a postseason date with the Capitals ... or see then get hot enough to finish seventh ... or the dots trail off to the point where the Flyers miss the playoffs altogether.

At least for a short while, it is not unusual for a hockey team to raise its level of play to make up for the loss of a star. Eventually, the wound will open, but the short-term bandage of inflated efforts can get a team past the injuries and the Flyers will have to deal with that against Colorado.

The best trend for the Flyers – and the reason the team is in the shape it is this late in the season – has been the play of goalie Steve Mason, who had a career game against Columbus with 51 saves on Tuesday night. In consecutive road games, Mason backboned a crucial victory over the Islanders in Brooklyn, and followed it up with what should have been a signature victory.

Instead, a game that was in lock-down mode on a power play turned into a mess when Wayne Simmonds’ ego took over his brain and he iced a puck trying to score an empty-net goal in the final minutes. The mistake led to a Columbus goal and less than a minute later, the Blue Jackets had tied the game and it headed to overtime.

And eventually the dreaded shootout.

Of course, the Flyers lost the shootout, but the good news there is that even in that scenario where Mason has struggled, he looked sharp making the first four stops. The failures came on the offensive side where none of the Flyers shooters managed to even take a credible shot on goal – missing the net, or literally running into goalie Sergei Bobrovsky.

It was a lost night in terms of letting a point escape, but the larger picture featured the steady play of Mason, the Flyers stealing a point despite being outplayed from beginning to end, three wonderful plays by Shayne Gostisbehere, a stout effort by Claude Giroux, and the fact that the Detroit Red Wings lost in regulation against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The problem with a “long-term” view is the fact that there is only a 10-game countdown and that is not a long-term period of time.

In a very short period of time, we will all get to see how first-year coach Dave Hakstol adjusts to the rapid gear shifting needed in a playoff drive. We will get to see how Hakstol manages his game-day lineup, and if he can shorten his bench at crunch time.

And we also get to see how he deals with a fragile goaltending situation. After all those years of leaky goaltending, only the Flyers could now find themselves in this situation where they have Mason at his hottest and best, but the coach has to decide whether or not to rest him for Anthony Stolarz, who has never played an NHL game.

It is only a possibility because backup goalie Michal Neuvirth is out with a knee injury, and the Flyers season is compressed to the point where there are still three sets of back-to-back games. Hakstol has indicated that he intends to use Stolarz, but with each game so critical and Mason so hot, when would he dare use the kid?

There is nothing but intrigue from here until … when?

If the Flyers continue of their track, they have their fate in their own hands with critical matchups that will likely continue until the very last day of the season on a Sunday afternoon in Brooklyn against the Islanders.

Connect the dots in your mind and you can see them finishing with the final playoff spot and a postseason date with the Capitals ... or see then get hot enough to finish seventh ... or the dots trail off to the point where the Flyers miss the playoffs altogether. 

Ten … nine … eight … seven …

The countdown has begun, and we will see if Hakstol can manage a lift off quicker than expected or if we have to wait till next year for a playoff takeoff.