VOORHEES – Even though his team currently sits in 10th place in the Eastern Conference heading into the final 32 games, Flyers coach Alain Vigneault still believes his team will make the playoffs.
Vigneault claims that when the season began he knew his team was in for a dogfight to make the postseason and that’s exactly how things appear to be shaping up down the stretch.
When the Flyers take the ice at PPG Paints Arena on Friday night to begin the post-NHL All-Star break segment of their schedule, they will be at least one point behind Carolina for the eighth and final playoff spot in the East.
At 27-17-6, the Flyers have put together a formidable mark for 60 points, but it just might take 100 points to get to the postseason.
That’s how competitive things are, especially in the Metropolitan Division, which has six teams with at least 60 points. No other division has more than four.
That said, Vigneault remains optimistic.
“I’ve been saying it all along and I’m still saying it today that we’re going to get into the playoffs,’’ he said after Thursday’s practice at the Skate Zone, the Flyers’ first workout since the bye week/All-Star break. “I believe we’ve got the talent, the veteran group. . .we’ve got good young players. We’re going to get in.’’
It’s worth noting the Flyers missed the playoffs last season and this season will try to avoid becoming the first Flyers team to miss the postseason two years in a row since 1992-1993 and 1993-94.
“You look at the teams in our division, in our conference, they’re competitive teams, teams that work hard,’’ Vigneault said.
“We’re in a good spot. We’re exactly where I thought we would be. I figured coming in (to the season), we would be one of those seven-eight teams fighting for those two-three playoff spots. And that’s exactly where we are.’’
Hardly anyone saw Columbus coming, particularly after they lost goalie Sergei Bobrovsky and top scorer Artemi Panarin.
“It might take a few more points than I originally thought,’’ Vigneault said. “That’s how competitive the Eastern Conference is. As a coach, that’s why we’re in this business.’’
The Flyers will get a boost from some of their returning injured players. Michael Raffl (head injury) will play at Pittsburgh and Shayne Gostisbehere (arthroscopic knee surgery) is getting close. Goalie Carter Hart (groin) still needs about another week.
“We have a real good challenge ahead of us,’’ Vigneault said. “We’ve prepared ourselves to face the opportunity head-on. We have 32 games left, I think coaches have to step up, our veteran leadership needs to step up. Our young players who are going through their first, second or third taste – to have the opportunity to make the playoffs and compete for the Stanley Cup, I think it’s an exciting time for everybody.’’
>All-Star Game fun for Konecny
Travis Konecny, the only Flyer to compete in the NHL All-Star Game at St. Louis last weekend, said it was a worthwhile experience.
“It was a lot of fun, I really enjoyed it,’’ he said. “It was my first time, so I was just soaking it all in.’’
>Gostisbehere getting close to return
Gostisbehere said his knee is pretty much ready to go but he might need some more practice time to get his conditioning back.
“That (Thursday) was only the third time I’ve skated,’’ Gostisbehere said. “I felt good. I think it’s more ‘wind’ than anything. It’s good to be out there with the guys.’’
Gostisbehere was playing some of his best hockey of the season prior to getting hurt, so it had to be frustrating to sit for a few weeks.
“The time (off) was a little tough,’’ he said. “It’s something that had to get done. I couldn’t put it off anymore.’’
He revealed the knee had been bothering him prior to shutting it down after the Carolina game on Jan. 7. So far he’s missed seven games.
“Thankfully it wasn’t a lot worse than we thought,’’ said Gostisbehere, who had ACL surgery early in his career. “I think it was a little blessing in disguise.’’
“Ghost’’ believes he’s turned the corner for this season.
“I definitely have a better mindset mentally,’’ said Gostisbehere, who was benched for three games in late November due to poor play. “I was feeling good. I think we realized on this team, we’re doing the little things, every guy has a small role, no matter what your role is, just roll with the punches.
“You might not get all the glam and the glitz – people might be mad because you’re not doing well. But you’re helping the team get wins.’’
Meanwhile, Raffl is back after sitting out the 3-0 win over Pitt just before the break.
“The break was very much needed,’’ he said. “I’m a hundred percent. I was battling headaches for a few days. It was nice to have the medical staff step in and take me out of that game.’’