What a difference three points make.
The Philadelphia Flyers went 9-1-0 in their last 10 games before the National Hockey League paused its season on March 12 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
At the trade deadline on Feb. 24, the Flyers sat third in the Metropolitan Division with 77 points in 62 games. The Pittsburgh Penguins held down second place with 80 points in 61 games, but their momentum was swinging in the opposite direction. The Penguins were on a three-game losing streak at deadline day, then went 3-5-0 before the season was paused.
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On Tuesday, Gary Bettman has declared the NHL regular season to be officially over.
The end result? The Penguins finished fifth in the Eastern Conference with 86 points. If the NHL does get back on the ice as hoped, later this summer, Pittsburgh will need to win a best-of-five play-in against Carey Price and the Montreal Canadiens in order to qualify for the playoffs.
Meanwhile, Philly is sitting pretty. By finishing fourth in the East with 89 points, the Flyers earn a bye through the play-in round that will automatically qualify them for the playoffs.
8️⃣9️⃣ points and looking to make some postseason NOISE!
— NHL on NBC (@NHLonNBCSports) May 26, 2020
Sights Fixed On First
That’s not all. The three-game round robin that the Flyers will play against the Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning and Washington Capitals won’t just help them sharpen their skills against elite competition. The four teams are also playing for first-round seeding, and they’re starting with a clean slate. If the Flyers win all three of their games, they’ll jump up to the top seed in the East.
“By getting a bye, they’re going to be facing a team that just came out of a competitive series,” Bettman explained about why the high-stakes approach was chosen for the top teams. “The concern was they needed to have some competition — that might not put them at risk, in terms of the playoffs, but would give them an opportunity to play some real games.
“They needed some games that mattered, to some extent, in order to not be coming against a team that just played a competitive series. The benefit and the curse of a bye, I suppose.”
It’s no curse at all for the Flyers. Worst-case scenario, they finish fourth — right where they started.
Here’s how the Flyers fared against those three teams this season:
Flyers vs. Bruins: 2-1-0
Both wins came by shootout, the last game before the pause was a 2-0 shutout loss.
Flyers vs. Lightning: 0-2-0
A 1-0 shutout loss at home in January, then a 5-3 road loss in mid-February.
Flyers vs. Capitals: 3-0-0
A 3-2 win at home in January, then a 7-2 win in February and a 5-2 win in March — both on the road, and both with Brian Elliott in net.
Flyers Leading Scorers – 2019-20
|6||James van Riemsdyk||30||LW||66||19||21||40|
Could Be Anybody’s Game
No matter what happens in the round robin, Philadelphia could face any of the four Eastern play-in teams that survive once they reach the first round. Their opponent will be determined by three things:
- where the Flyers finish in their round robin mini-tournament
- which teams advance out of the qualifying round
- whether the playoffs use the traditional bracket structure throughout, or if teams are re-seeded based on points percentage after the qualifying round
That last issue has not yet been decided. There seems to be a feeling that players prefer the idea of re-seeding.
No Home Advantage
As well as no fans in the stands in this made-for-TV affair, there is one other challenge facing the Flyers and, most likely, every other team — no home-ice advantage. The league is looking to choose two ‘hub cities’ from this list of 10 NHL markets.
10 cities are being considered for the two hub city spots that will host the Stanley Cup Playoffs. pic.twitter.com/bMLxSCvpRW
— NHL on NBC (@NHLonNBCSports) May 26, 2020
Philadelphia isn’t an option. But even teams whose cities are on the list may not get to play at home, either.
“I’ve heard arguments on both sides of that equation,” said deputy commissioner Bill Daly on Tuesday. “I can’t tell you that has been finally decided. But, particularly given the fact that there are no fans in the stands, we certainly see some merit to moving the club to a different market so that any perceived advantages associated with being in a home market are eliminated.”
When will the games happen? That’s still fluid, depending on how the return-to-play process unfolds. So far, the only protocols that have been nailed down involve players beginning small-group, strictly voluntary workouts. It’s hoped that practice facilities can open up to host these workouts beginning in early June.