5 keys to Flyers making playoff push

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5 keys to Flyers making playoff push

When the Flyers begin the post-Christmas portion of their schedule Thursday night in Florida, they’ll be staring up at two Metropolitan Division teams (Rangers & Islanders) that are currently holding onto the two wild card positions in the Eastern Conference. 

Despite their recent 10-game winless stretch, the Flyers find themselves within a reach of the postseason. Here’s how they can get there: 

Dominate home ice
General manager Ron Hextall said earlier this season the Flyers need to improve on the road while also maintain at home. Through the first 36 games of the schedule, the Flyers have played better away from South Broad, but they haven’t exactly maintained that success at home like Hextall had anticipated. 

Looking back over the past four seasons, the Flyers have finished with 55, 54, 53 and 51 points on home ice. In order to reach the 53-point mark on home ice this season, the Flyers need 33 points over their remaining 22 games at the Wells Fargo Center, a mark of 12-6-6 or something similar would get them there, preferably picking up two points against divisional opponents, starting with Pittsburgh on Jan. 2. 

Improve penalty kill
In 2013-14, during Craig Berube’s first full season as head coach, the Flyers PK finished 7th in the NHL to help secure the second wild-card spot. During their final 29 games, they killed off an impressive 88.1 percent, and their 17-8-4 record during the stretch run reflected that.

Since that year, the Flyers PK has finished 27th, 20th, 21st and they’re currently 29th. There’s definitely room for improvement for a team that has already made strides defensively in their 5-on-5 play. As the league starts to bear down defensively, checking gets tighter, scoring will be harder to come by and special teams play will take on a greater emphasis. Finishing in the 20-22 range should be the aim from here on out.    
Offense from supporting cast
Playoff teams can’t solely rely on one stacked line throughout the 82-game slate. Look at the 2014-15 Flyers team that saw Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek finish with 154 points combined and still found themselves 14 points out of a playoff spot. 

Coming into this season, the players the Flyers were counting on to provide offensive assistance have failed to do so. Travis Konecny (four goals) and Jordan Weal (three goals) must increase their production over the next 40-plus games, while Nolan Patrick needs to be more assertive in the offensive end. The Flyers would certainly benefit from a little more offense out of their fourth line as well.   

Winning 3-on-3
With 23 of the Flyers remaining 46 games coming against divisional opponents and 39 of 46 against the East, we’re about to discover just how vital those three-point games really are. Losing overtime/shootouts will result in a two-point swing, and as their 2-8 record would indicate, the Flyers have performed very poorly after regulation, where winning half of those eight games would have them currently tied for the wild card.

Of the six teams with seven or more losses after regulation this season, only the Ducks — who barely hanging on — currently occupy a playoff spot. Considering the Flyers' history and even their performance in the shootout this season, they’re clearly better equipped to win games in overtime.

A steady Elliott
Starting 28 of the Flyers' first 36 games, Brian Elliott has clearly established himself as the Flyers’ No.1 netminder and can be counted on as the team’s most reliable goalie. Elliott is currently on pace for the heaviest workload of his 11-year career. He’s never received more than 51 starts in any season. 

There’s nothing to indicate that Elliott can’t handle 60-plus starts as Michal Neuvirth seems to be one quirky injury away from missing significant time. Breaking down his career splits, March has been Elliott’s best month with a 2.17 GAA and a .921 save percentage in 72 career starts. He was vital last season for the Flames when he went 15-1-1 to help Calgary into the playoffs. More importantly, the Flyers will need Elliott to maintain the same level of consistency that we’ve seen throughout the first three months of the season.

Panthers upset West-best Golden Knights in OT

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Panthers upset West-best Golden Knights in OT

SUNRISE, Fla. -- Aaron Ekblad scored 40 seconds into overtime to lift the Panthers to a 4-3 victory over the Vegas Golden Knights on Friday night, spoiling former coach Gerard Gallant's return to Florida.

Ekblad grabbed a rebound in the high slot and fired it past Malcolm Subban to give Florida its second win in six games this month.

Aleksander Barkov scored his league-leading fifth short-handed goal of the season and had two assists, and Evgenii Dadonov and Jamie McGinn also scored for the Panthers. James Reimer stopped 33 shots.

William Karlsson had a goal and an assist, and David Perron and James Neal also scored for Vegas. Subban finished with 22 saves (see full recap).

Pacioretty, Canadiens snap 3-game skid
WASHINGTON -- Max Pacioretty had two goals and an assist to help the Montreal Canadiens break a three-game losing streak with a 3-2 win over the Washington Capitals on Friday night.

Paul Byron also scored for the Canadiens. Antii Niemi, playing in place of Carey Price, who had been in goal for eight consecutive games, stopped 24 shots.

John Carlson and Lars Eller scored for the Capitals, and Philipp Grubauer finished with 22 saves.

Pacioretty, who has six goals in the last six games, scored Montreal's first goal at 7:08 in the second period and added an empty-netter with 1:18 remaining in the game (see full recap).

Ducks get upper hand on rival Kings again
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Ryan Kesler deflected home Francois Beauchemin's shot for the tiebreaking goal with 7:39 to play and the Anaheim Ducks won their second Freeway Faceoff in seven days, beating the struggling Los Angeles Kings 2-1 Friday night.

Adam Henrique scored early in the third period and John Gibson made 23 saves for the Ducks, who have won six of nine overall.

Rookie Alex Iafallo evened it for Los Angeles moments after Henrique's goal, but Kesler's long deflection sent the puck bouncing past Jonathan Quick. Anaheim then hung on in a frantic final minute to even the archrivals' season series at two games apiece.

Quick stopped 29 shots in the Kings' sixth consecutive loss, extending their longest skid of the season (see full recap).

Flyers have clear path to postseason but ...

Flyers have clear path to postseason but ...

It’s about to get real for the Philadelphia Flyers.

Real serious and potentially really hard. The Flyers have played the fewest divisional games of any team in the NHL.

That might be beneficial if the team located about 40 minutes off the shores of the Atlantic Ocean actually played in the Atlantic Division. The Flyers have hammered Atlantic teams this season: an 8-4-0 record including a win in Tampa and their most recent three-game series sweep of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Whereas the Atlantic houses a collection of domesticated poodles and Pomeranians, the Metropolitan Division is more a breeding ground for vicious Dobermans and pit bulls.

And the Flyers are about to enter the teeth of that beast.

Dave Hakstol’s club plays 19 of their remaining 37 games against the rock-solid Metropolitan, the only 8-team division in hockey without a legitimate doormat or two. 

“It’s good or bad depending on whether you’re winning or not,” general manager Ron Hextall said.“It’s great taking points from other teams and adding to your total. It does put a higher importance on those games for sure. Every game is important, but certain games are just a little more important. Your lows can’t be too low. That’s the bottom line.

“They’re divisional games. They’re huge games for us, especially with how tight it is with that wild card spot,” center Sean Couturier said. “We’ve got to step up and be ready for the challenge.”

Unfortunately for the Flyers, their sore spot over their past two-plus seasons has been their play against the Metropolitan elites — the teams they’re typically chasing in the standings.

4-4-1 vs. Capitals
3-5-2 vs. Rangers
3-6-1 vs. Penguins
2-3-4 vs. Blue Jackets

Collectively, that’s a 12-18-8 record in the Dave Hakstol era with just a 4-9-6 mark on the road. Interestingly, defenseman Brandon Manning believes roster formation has been part of the reason behind the success of the Flyers' opponents.  

“Credit to them, I think they’ve done a good job of getting better every year,” Manning said. “You look at what Pittsburgh does with their turnover and still finding a way to win. Columbus is so much better and you look at Jersey, which hasn’t been the greatest team the past couple of years, but this year they have a really good hockey team. I think credit to those teams for finding a way to get better.” 

And if there’s a direct path to the postseason, then winning these crucial divisional games has to be the way to get there. Since the formation of the NHL’s current four-division alignment in 2013-14, the Metropolitan has sent 17 teams to the playoffs and only once has a team reached the postseason without a winning record within the division — the Pittsburgh Penguins finished 9-17-4 in the Metro in 2014-15. 

The Capitals, Rangers and Blue Jackets also have the luxury of rostering a Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender in crucial divisional games, whereas, Hakstol will rely more on a platoon based on Elliott’s first-half workload and Neuvirth attempting to regain his early season form.  

“I haven’t studied the schedule that much in depth, but considering Moose started a stretch of 25 out of 30 games, that’s a real heavy workload,” Hakstol said. “I would expect the workload to be more spread out than that. We’ll find the best rhythm to be able and have both of them help our team.

“You need two goalies. I don’t care who you are,” Hextall said. “Look around the league. I said it before, there’s no Marty Brodeurs.”

Maybe not, but Saturday it all starts with Brodeur’s former team and with a back-to-back against the Devils and the Capitals this weekend. The Flyers' position within the division can change very drastically one direction or the other.