VOORHEES – Just a week or two ago, the talk around the Flyers was about the struggle to secure a playoff wild card spot.
How quickly things have changed.
After sweeping a home-and-home series with division rival Columbus, the Flyers find themselves not only third (a seeded spot) in the Metro Division but just five points out of first place.
After Thursday night’s come-from-behind win over the Blue Jackets, there seems to be a new level of belief in the Flyers’ locker room.
They realize that come postseason time, home ice really could be to their advantage.
After all, they are 20-5-4 at the Wells Fargo Center and the five regulation-time losses are tied with Pittsburgh for second-fewest in the NHL, trailing only Boston’s remarkable two defeats.
Conversely, the Flyers are just 14-15-3 on the road and those 15 regulation-time losses are the most of any team currently in the playoff picture.
Of course, coach Alain Vigneault wants nothing to do with “long range’’ aspirations. He just wants his players to focus on the task at hand, namely the Winnipeg Jets, who hit town for a matinee game on Saturday.
But the players, well, that’s a different story.
After Friday’s practice at the Skate Zone, several acknowledged they have raised their goal – that is, challenge the division leaders (Pittsburgh, Washington) and make themselves a legitimate contender.
Cause for the resurgence: A trust, a belief and some mutual respect between players and coaches.
“That’s how you win,’’ Travis Konecny said. “You have to buy in to what you’re being asked to do. We’ve been doing a great job, everyone has been finding another groove as of late.
“I don’t think we’re satisfied just trying to make the playoffs. Obviously it is still in the front of our minds there, you know it’s going to be a battle until the end to make the playoffs. But why lower the bar?’’
Indeed. The Flyers have been building momentum and jumped over Columbus, Carolina and the New York Islanders in the standings.
“We’re not looking too far ahead,’’ Konecny said. “I know everyone is getting excited, it’s that time of year. But you have to get in first, that’s what you have to do.’’
Defenseman Philippe Myers continues to improve as the season goes along. His plus-16 is tied for the NHL rookie plus-minus lead with Minnesota’s Carson Soucy.
Like Konecny, he would like to see the Flyers make a run for the Metro title.
“I think it’s a very realistic goal for us to finish with home ice here in the playoffs,’’ he said. “We’ve been turning in the right direction these past couple weeks.
“We showed a lot of character in the last game (at Columbus). We were down 3-1, came back. . .we just have to keep sticking together, we believe in the coach’s system. Just stick together and execute.’’
That faith in the player sitting next to you can go a long way in the final quarter of the season.
Right now the Flyers are on pace to finish with over 100 points.
“I think everybody in this room believes in each other,’’ Myers said. “I have the same feeling I had in junior (Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, with the powerhouse Rouyn-Noranda Huskies). Everybody has each other’s backs. We just have to keep believing.’’
The Flyers’ team goal differential has hit a season-high plus-21, another positive sign for the team.
“We do have the team belief,’’ Scott Laughton said. “The guys are playing hard right now and it shows. I think the guys really want it and they’re putting their bodies on the line.’’
Are we getting ahead of ourselves here? There are still 21 games to play and the top six teams in the Metro are separated by only eight points.
“It’s hard not to look at the big picture,’’ Laughton said. “You try to take it day-by-day as much as you can. We deserve to be in this position (five points out of first). I don’t think it should come as a surprise.’’
Added Vigneault: “This group prepares itself well to go out, compete and execute. That’s how we’ve gotten ourselves in this playoff race. We prepare, we have a plan, we try to execute that plan. They work extremely hard on the ice and that’s what we need to continue to do.’’
Goaltender Carter Hart will get the start against the Jets. He is 15-2-2 at home with a 1.62 goals-against average and .943 save percentage. . .Justin Braun, who missed Thursday’s game due to illness, will be back against Winnipeg. So far, emergency call-up Mark Friedman remains with the team. “I really liked his compete level (vs. Columbus),’’ Vigneault said. “I thought he tried to make the right plays with the puck in a tough environment.’’