PHILADELPHIA – It’s officially time for the Flyers to dust off the panic button.
After Thursday night’s 5-3 defeat by the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Flyers once-comfortable playoff lead (which was as much as 14 points only three weeks ago) has shrunk to just four points, with ninth-place Florida holding three games in hand.
Also, the Flyers’ loss leaves them in a virtual tie with Columbus for the third (seeded) spot in the Metropolitan Division standings.
The two teams are knotted in points (81) but the Flyers have one more ROW (regulation/overtime win, 33-32).
Of perhaps more significance, the ninth-place Panthers defeated Boston at home on Thursday night, meaning the Florida crew still has its foot firmly on the gas pedal.
Against Columbus, the Flyers – now 1-6-1 in their last eight games after going 10-0-2 in their previous 12 — were in chase mode practically from the opening whistle.
They had only two shots in the first 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, Columbus scored goals 11 seconds apart (Oliver Bjorkstrand at 9:41, Boone Jenner at 9:52) to stun the Wells Fargo Center faithful.
From coach Dave Hakstol to the players, the feeling seemed to be that the Flyers didn’t come out with the necessary energy.
“I thought their team was a little bit more ready to play,’’ Hakstol said. “That squarely comes to me. I thought their team was a little bit more ready to play in that first 20 minutes and that can’t happen this time of year.’’
As for the ever-tightening race, Hakstol said his team has to clean up its game and eliminate some of the mistakes it continues to make.
At the same time, it can’t dwell on those. The Flyers have a big road game in Carolina on Saturday and then return to the Wells Fargo Center to play Washington on Sunday.
“I think it’s that time of year,’’ Hakstol said. “You always have to look at the reality of the situation. There’s a dark side and a negative side and then there’s an opportunity side.
“At this time of year, there are things we have to take from this game but there are also things we have to leave behind. The real honest truth is, there are 11 games to go, it’s an even race. There are eight spots to be had and we’re right there.
“I told our players after, I’ll take that challenge. I’ll happily take that on with our group. We have to be able to clear the deck, clear the mind and really get focused on the next challenge ahead.’’
The Flyers did eventually rally in this game, getting one back on a Claude Giroux goal at 11:34 but Columbus answered on the first of three Cam Atkinson goals at 18:08.
Philadelphia began another comeback just 14 seconds into the second period.
With the Flyers on a power play, Shayne Gostisbehere skated into the right circle and fired a shot through defenseman Jack Johnson’s skates. A screened Sergei Bobrovsky was handcuffed and the Blue Jackets’ lead was cut to 3-2.
However, Atkinson scored his second goal off a two-on-one rush against Gostisbehere at 3:23 to restore the two-goal lead.
That was all for starting goalie Petr Mrazek, who allowed four goals on just 10 shots.
Enter rookie Alex Lyon, who held Columbus at bay the rest of the period.
Meanwhile, Andrew MacDonald launched a long shot which eluded Bobrovsky at 12:23 to once again cut the visitors’ lead to one goal.
But that would be it for the Flyers’ offense.
MacDonald confirmed the Flyers have to improve the caliber of their play.
“The sense of urgency has to be amped up, regardless of where we’re at,’’ MacDonald said. “They got a couple quick ones tonight, we were pretty loose with our coverage. Maybe our level of intensity wasn’t where it needed to be to start the game. From there, we were behind the 8-ball.’’
The Flyers have 11 games to turn this around.
“We didn’t have a good start,’’ Giroux said. “We battled back but we put ourselves in a bad position. It’s a tough stretch right now. We’ve been in this position before. We have to put it behind us and somehow get our confidence back.’’
Added Gostisbehere, who was a minus-3: “Our readiness wasn’t quite there. This time of year, it’s tough to have those kinds of starts. But we’re still sitting pretty. We need to keep pushing.’’
Gostisbehere’s goal was his first since Feb. 1 (19 games). . .Giroux took what appeared to be a high stick in the second period and only logged 4:08 of ice time in that frame. He normally averages close to seven minutes per period. After the game, he was sporting a cut above his upper lip which required multiple stitches to close. Giroux’s goal extended his point streak to eight games. He’s now only two points away from passing Eric Lindros (659) on the Flyers’ alltime scoring list. It’s the third-longest point streak of his career. He had a 10-game streak in 2016 and a nine-game streak in 2013.