While the Flyers might not have even reached the halfway point in their season, they may as well think of themselves in “playoff stretch run’’ mode already.
In this 56-game pandemic-shortened season, there are no easy nights (not even the Buffalo Sabres based on Tuesday night’s nail-biter) and every game really is a “four-pointer.’’
Here’s the dilemma for Philadelphia: Four teams from each division make the playoffs and the East just happens to have five legitimate candidates.
Imagine the wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth by Flyers followers if they didn’t make the playoffs this season, especially after last year’s promising campaign which saw them win a playoff series for the first time since 2012.
Such an event clearly would be a step back for coach Alain Vigneault and his staff in their second year at the helm.
After an 8-3-2 start which featured less than pretty play, the Flyers have been basically a .500 team and trending in the wrong direction.
Some will say the COVID crisis which postponed four games and had six players stuck in protocol provides a legitimate excuse.
But does that explain the mistakes the Flyers constantly make on defense?
After the 14-game mark (one-fourth of the season) we were giving out “A’s’’ and “B’s” on our report card. Those marks might look a little different now.
Vigneault was asked if there’s a little more desperation with his team in fifth place and the New York Islanders, Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins showing little sign of letting up.
“I thought we were in the stretch drive starting the first game,’’ Vigneault said during a media Zoom call on Friday. “You look at the division, the quality of the teams and the competition.
“At end of the day, the hockey people here knew it was going to be a challenge; a challenge that we want but it’s a tough division. All the games are of the utmost importance. All the teams are good, so it’s going to be a lot of fun.’’
The one good thing about playing nothing but games against your own division is that teams like the Flyers control their own fate. That said, they can’t afford many losses to teams such as the Rangers, Devils and Sabres who don’t figure to make the postseason and also must do better against contenders such as Boston, which has already beaten the Flyers five times (three in regulation).
It’s an uphill battle, to say the least, and the difficult schedule won’t make it any easier.
>ESPN contract to the rescue
Make no mistake about it, the National Hockey League has taken a financial beating over the past year due to empty arenas left closed by the pandemic.
But help is on the way.
For the first time since 2004, ESPN is back chasing pucks. Maybe now you can find a hockey score on the various channels of the world-wide leader in sports.
The seven-year contract signed by the NHL and ESPN should help ease the financial burden brought about by the COVID mess. Some believe the infusion of money could even help raise the salary cap for the 2021-22 season.
Where this exactly leaves NBC, which has broadcast the NHL for the past 10 years, is anybody’s guess.
No doubt the NHL wouldn’t mind having two networks involved in their coverage. When the story first broke, the understanding was ESPN would get four Stanley Cup Finals in its seven-year deal.
The good thing for the NHL is that ESPN is virtually on 24 hours a day and will be showing highlights, doing interviews and promoting the sport until the most casual fan has become an “expert.’’