Been a While: Flyers are top seed for first time in 20 Years after beating Lightning

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The Flyers are the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference as we enter the traditional playoff round of 16 teams.

Let that sentence sink in for a minute.

There’s not a person in the entire hockey world who, a year ago as we were approaching training camp for the 2019-20 season, would have made such a bold prediction.

Heck, even here at HPC (Hockey Prognostication Central), we thought the Flyers were a possible playoff team who would be battling for fifth place in the Metropolitan Division.

And yet, in this craziest of years, where meaningful hockey is being played in a month usually known in the sports world as the dog days of baseball season, the Flyers are somewhere they haven’t been in a generation.

That’s right, after a 4-1 win of the Tampa Bay Lightning in the final Round Robin playoff game Sunday, the Flyers are the top team in the East for the first time since 1999-2000, a season that was filled with Eric Lindros drama (imagine if this site and social media existed back then. Hoo boy!) and one that ended with the Flyers gagging on a 3-1 series lead against the New Jersey Devils when Lindros returned despite missing the whole season and despite playing well, threw off the team chemistry and eventually was drilled in the jaw by Scott Stevens in an infamous video clip, before Patrick Elias scored the game-winning dagger to eliminate them.

Yep. This is the first time since then.

And fans should be excited. The Flyers are a freaking wagon. They come at you in waves. There’s no time to breathe on the ice against them. It’s four lines of constant pressure. It’s a team that might not be the fastest in the NHL, but they will skate with you and force you to skate harder than you want for longer than you want.

They’re well-conditioned. They wear you down. They catch you flat-footed and pounce.

Oh, and they finally have a young, unflappable goalie.

These Flyers are legit. There will be 16 teams in these playoffs but if we’re being honest, only six of them have a real chance to win the Cup: St. Louis, Vegas, Colorado, Tampa Bay, Boston and yes, the Flyers.

Washington and Carolina are good teams who could make a run, but they both have flaws. The Islanders have a Stanley Cup-winning coach and a team defense that can scare the bejeezus out of you, but they lack the offensive talent to go all the way. Dallas could put a scare into you and Vancouver is going to be one of the favorites in the coming years, but they’re not ready either.

And everyone else is just happy to be here.

So, yes, the Flyers, after a decade of disappointment, are back among the league’s elite.

Rejoice. Celebrate. Get excited. Memorize the playoff schedule (don’t worry, it’s not out yet) because these games will be must-see viewing.

The next two months are going to be quite fun in these parts.

But don’t take your excitement too far.

If anything, we should be heeding the advice of a great, great man:

I know, what you’re thinking, “Who’s the old guy raining on my parade?” I promise, I’m not. Like you I think this team can win a Stanley Cup in October.

But, I also have been on this NHL playoff journey many times and can tell you, there’s nothing easy about it. It rarely goes as expected. It’s full of twists, turns, unexpected outcomes and a whole hell of a lot of drama.

Winning the Cup is as much about survival as it is about outplaying your opponents 16 times.

Matt Niskanen has done it, winning the Cup with the Capitals in 2018. Claude Giroux and James van Riemsdyk got to the Final as very young players with the Flyers in 2010. Justin Braun got there with the Sharks in 2016.

That’s the extent of the Flyers experience with making that deep of a run.

Some will say that’s OK. Being young and not knowing this is supposed to be hard could be a benefit. Agreed. Sometimes, it’s better to be good and naive. It takes the mental side of this journey out of the mix.

And this year that might be especially so, with no fans at the games to boo, or constantly remind you to shooooooot, or the media asking you a bunch of ridiculous questions and shining the spotlight even more harshly.

And being in a bubble, and having no influences outside of hockey getting in the way, whether its the temptations of late-night carousing, or small children keeping you up to all hours, or other familial demands.

Instead, it’s life in a bubble. It’s like a hockey vacation.

So, maybe that’s better.

But there’s something to be said for experience. The Blues had one of the most memorable runs in the history of the sport a year ago, so you know they’re tested. Boston’s core has won this thing before and seems to be in the Final Four almost annually. Vegas was in the Final its first year in existence two seasons ago.

Tampa and Colorado may be the two most talented teams in the league, but like the Flyers they are light on Finals experience.

So, it’s an interesting blend. And there will be upsets. Heck, we’ve seen it already. Montreal, Chicago and Arizona were the three worst teams entering this modified playoff system and all three advanced to the round of 16 while good teams in Pittsburgh, Edmonton and Nashville are now hoping to get a lucky ping pong ball bounce tomorrow and garner the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.

So, be prepared for something more unexpected to come.

Still, the Flyers are in the catbird seat. They’ll now play those Canadiens who upset the Penguins. It’s a cute story, but the Habs will be no match for the Flyers.

But after that is when it gets interesting. Heck, there’s a lot interesting about the Flyers’ story right now.

Here’s five things to consider:

1. Today’s game between Washington and Boston is huge

The Caps and Bruins may be playing for the No. 3 seed, which doesn’t seem like much. The team that wins and gets that seed will play the Islanders in the first round while the loser is the No. 4 seed and will play the Hurricanes in the first round.

There’s not much of a difference there, but there is this:

The Flyers are certainly a better team than Washington. However, Boston is still a bear. One win over them against their backup goalie and missing two second line wingers doesn’t just suddenly make the Flyers superior.

As such, Flyers fans should root hard for the Bruins today. If they win, it’s sets up a potential second round matchup between the Lightning and Bruins and the Flyers potentially would draw the Caps (if seeding holds).

That’s a much better path to the Final having to only beat one of Boston/Tampa in a seven-game series and not both – especially after they likely just played a brutal series against one another.

So…

2. Joel Farabee scored a goal, should he stay in the lineup for the Flyers?

This is a good question.

Farabee certainly has the skill set to be in this lineup for the playoffs if the LFyers need him – and they might need him.

Michael Raffl is going to definitely miss time with a leg injury. Jake Voracek’s status is completely unknown at the moment, as no one seems to know if he’s sick, injured, or was just a healthy scratch against Tampa.

So, a lot of the Farabee decision depends on Jake.

But, let’s assume Voracek is OK. After all, he once said to me, “Look at my career. I don’t miss many games. I really have to be hurt bad to miss a bunch of games. If it’s a small injury, I’ll play. Especially in the playoffs.”

Not to mention, I think if Voracek was going to miss extended time, I think the Flyers would have been slightly more forthcoming – like they were with Raffl – that he would be out more than just the one game.

Still, playing along, Jake comes back and joins the top line again. Where does that leave Farabee?

Does he stay in the lineup in a bottom six role?

I could make an argument that he’d give you more than van Riemsdyk at this point, but I’m not sure Farabee is a guy you want giving you “energy” minutes. He’s the kind of player that needs more involvement. That needs more opportunities to score. That needs plays like this:

(I was truly hoping that tweet had the Spanish Language Broadcast and we had a Soccer-style goal call. Sadly, that wasn’t the case).

I’m not sure Farabee is as beneficial in your lineup playing with Tyler Pitlick and Nate Thompson or even Derek Grant and Nick Aube-Kubel.

That said, JVR has not looked good at all in this restart. He’s always been a square peg trying to fit into the round hole of Alain Vigneault’s system, so maybe Farabee sticks in place of JVR.

And for those who say JVR is an expensive healthy scratch – nobody gets paid in the playoffs. There’s no salary cap in the playoffs. Scratching a $7 million player is no different than scratching a $700,000 player.

If Farabee stays in the lineup, I think he has a better chance of replacing JVR than anyone else. That’s because….

3. Connor Bunnaman deserves to stay in the lineup

I know this won’t be a popular take, but when it comes to roster construction, there are things you have to consider besides just who is going to score goals for your team.

You won’t find Bunny’s name on the score sheet much. He had one penalty and one shot on goal in two round robin games.

But, it should be noted that he took a regular shift in both games. Even in third periods when the FLyers are protecting leads – Bunnaman was on the ice. He averaged 12:04 of ice time in the two games. He’s smart player who does little things well. He fits the mold of the energy player to replace Raffl better than anyone else on the roster.

He’s a better fit than both Farabee and JVR for the fourth line. Period. I think we’ll see him in the lineup against Montreal.

Regardless, of how this all shakes out, these are good problems for Vigneault to have as a coach.

4. OK… but what about Shayne Gostisbehere?

Ahhh. You were all waiting for this one, right?

Look, Ghost had a really good game against Tampa. His audition was successful. He was noticeable. He was making things happen offensively. You saw the pass to Farabee above. Then there was this helper on the first of two Aube-Kubel goals:

Ghost needs to get shots to the net to be successful. He does that here. He did it a few times Saturday. This shot is a little high for my liking and requires Aube-Kubel to make a really nice deflection to score the goal, but its a good sign to see visions of the old Ghost again.

So two assists, shots on goal, skating well… Ghost should stay in the lineup, right?

Well, here’s the thing. It might look good from a fan’s perspective, but from the coaching perspective, it’s not as sound.

I always felt Ghost plays the game with a little recklessness. He’s a gambler. When his gambles hit, boy are they glorious. When they don’t, well, it makes you want to throw your chips all over the casino.

He did have a play or two against Tampa that won’t make the coaches happy. Nothing that led to a goal by Tampa, but little plays where there were better options that he didn’t take because he plays with his hair on fire so many times.

I think it’s quite telling that in the third period, with the Flyers protecting a two goal lead, Ghost was not on the ice.

He played just 12:22, the fewest minutes of any Flyers defenseman, and took all of four shifts in the third period.

Like I said, he had a nice game. It was productive. Fans will certainly be excited about that. But will that keep him in the lineup? I doubt it. He’ll see time at some point in these playoffs, for sure. But, expect Robert Hagg to be back in the lineup for Game 1 against Montreal.

5. Nick Aube-Kubel has figured it out

I’ve told the story about Ian Laperriere telling young players they have to find their chair in the NHL. And by that he means that not all chairs are comfortable to all people and that the chair you end up liking the most may be different than the one you expected to like.

For Aube-Kubel, there was a wake up call moment prior to last season.

Going unclaimed and being sent back to the minors made him realize the role he needed to play. When he was brought back during the season, he embraced the role. He found his chair. Third-line winger who plays with speed, nastiness and is unafraid to go into the greasy areas to try to score.

It’s the mold of say Kris Draper – be a difference maker when you have to be. Be a hard-worker always. Be a teammate forever.

It’s the right attitude. It’s the right fit. It’s the perfect time too. And it’s an indicator of what makes these Flyers so special.

Yep. And it’ll carry them a long way this Summer and into the Fall.

For more Flyers coverage, follow Snow The Goalie on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Also be sure to tune into The Press Row Show as Anthony SanFilippo and Russ Joy provide pregame and intermission coverage of every Flyers home game from press row of the Wells Fargo Center via the Crossing Broad Facebook page, YouTube Live, and Twitter, and their Twitter accounts   

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