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.

What are Flyers made of? We're about to find out

What are Flyers made of? We're about to find out

VOORHEES, N.J. — The Penguins have the Flyers on the canvas in a headlock.

The faces of the guys who wear orange and black are turning purple, and unless they put up a courageous fight as they did in Game 2, they will tap out of this best-of-seven series after just five games (see story).

General manager Ron Hextall spoke to the media for the first time since the series started and believes the Flyers have displayed a lack of mental fortitude through the first four games.

“A lot of it is mentality,” Hextall said. “We need to be stronger if a bump goes the other way. We need to be stronger and bounce back and create energy going back our way. The playoffs are a series of momentum (swings) — within a period and within a game. We need to do a better job of bringing the momentum back our way."

So where exactly does that start? The return of Sean Couturier would help considerably.

After sitting out Game 4’s 5-0 loss, the Selke Trophy finalist hasn’t ruled out playing in Game 5 after skating Wednesday and Thursday on his own. Hextall said Couturier would travel to Pittsburgh and nothing more than that.

“I’m feeling better every day, and we’ll see how I feel tomorrow,” Couturier said. “It’s really on me to see how I feel every day and hopefully, it keeps getting better. It’s really up to my body to see how it keeps progressing.”

Dave Hakstol switched up his lines once again Thursday, most notably installing Valtteri Filppula onto the top line with Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek and breaking up the top defense pairing of Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere.

Robert Hagg is also expected to make his series debut, playing alongside Andrew MacDonald as fellow rookie Travis Sanheim will serve as the healthy scratch.

“About time,” Hagg said. “I’m looking forward to it tomorrow. Hopefully, I can bring something to the team, some energy. I think it’s perfect and I can’t wait to go in and show what I can bring to the team.”

“He brings a different element than a couple of guys in the lineup if we’re so inclined to make that change,” Hakstol said. “We haven’t generated very much over the last five periods, but at the same time, we’ve given up quite a bit in some of the harder areas.”

Toward the end of Thursday’s 45-minute practice, Giroux gathered his teammates around and delivered a speech he hopes can galvanize the Flyers for Game 5 and bring the series back to Philadelphia for Game 6.

“I think it’s believing in ourselves," Giroux said. "All year we’ve done that, and we’ve talked about it before. You lose 10 in a row and find a way to make the playoffs. Tomorrow’s a big game for us, and if we’re going to go down, we’re going to go down swinging.”

Quick hits
• Speaking on the collision with Radko Gudas, Couturier said, "We've done this drill all year. It was bad timing and a fluke accident. There's no one to really blame, and I should have maybe had my head up there."

• Hextall believes Couturier should be the Selke Trophy frontrunner based on his outstanding 2017-18 season.

"I think he should win it," Hextall said. "I know those other players fairly well, and yes, I watch Coots on a daily basis, but the two-way game that he brings to our team is in my mind, the best in the league this year."

• Penguins forward Patric Hornqvist will miss his second straight game.

Ding dong, the Flyers-Penguins rivalry is gone

Ding dong, the Flyers-Penguins rivalry is gone

Michal Neuvirth stood by his locker Wednesday night dejected, like the rest of his teammates, after the Flyers’ latest blunder, an embarrassing 5-0 loss on home ice to the Penguins in Game 4.

The Flyers are on the brink of elimination to the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions, and Wednesday's defeat was the latest reminder of their current state of affairs.

"Definitely good to get in the mix," said Neuvirth, who replaced Brian Elliott in the second period for his first game action since March 28. "But tough outcome tonight. We lost it to a better team tonight."

With that, Neuvirth perfectly encapsulated exactly where the Flyers stand in this first-round playoff series with Pittsburgh. It's definitely good to be in the mix, and they lost to the better team.

We've heard that before and we'll hear it again, but it doesn't make it any easier to swallow. This Flyers team isn't quite there yet, to compete with the Penguins or in the playoffs.

There are encouraging signs. The postseason experience will pay off in the long run — it's better than not being there. Nolan Patrick, 19, has perhaps been the Flyers' most consistent forward in the series. He was the only player who competed Wednesday.

But goaltending remains an eyesore and rookie mistakes are consistently being made by veterans, and some appear immune to accountability. Game 4 was as ugly as it gets (see story), and that's counting a series that included a 7-0 loss in Game 1.

The Flyers were never really in Wednesday's game outside of about a two-minute stretch in the first period, when they were buzzing in the Pittsburgh zone until a Scott Laughton centering pass turned into a Penguins odd-man rush.

Bang, 2-0 Pittsburgh. Ballgame.

"From our standpoint," Dave Hakstol said, "we have to look from within. There's going to be momentum swings, there are going to be pushes, but we haven't been able to reestablish our game quick enough to give ourselves an opportunity."

Wednesday served as another grim reminder. This Flyers-Penguins rivalry, well, isn't much of a rivalry and hasn't been one in quite some time now.

Coming into this series, we heard the old storylines, about how much these two teams hate each other, how close games are, but the hate hasn't been there for a while and the games, they haven't been close, either.

The Penguins have dominated the Flyers, this season especially. With the 5-0 win Wednesday, the Pens have outscored the Flyers, 38-17, in eight total games and 20-4 in games played at the Wells Fargo Center.

The hype machine was on full blast and we all bought into it. It's the playoffs, different animal, but some things never change no matter the environment.

At some point, it's time to bury the hatchet.

It was fun while it lasted, but for now, the Flyers-Penguins rivalry is no more.