The Philadelphia Flyers Stanley Cup dreams begin and end in net.
The Philadelphia Flyers made the playoffs in their final game of the regular season, beating the New York Rangers 5-0 and moving up to third in the Metropolitan.
They are set to play their rivals the Pittsburgh Penguins, who will have home ice advantage for the series, the Flyers went 0-2-2 against the Penguins this year
It’s been a roller coaster of a season for the Flyers, who lost ten straight in November, then went 12 straight games with at least a point in February.
A lot of the inconsistency can be linked to the goaltending – something Flyers fans are accustomed to hearing about.
Philadelphia has struggled to find a reliable netminder since Ron Hextall.
At the start of this year, the plan was for Elliott and Michal Neuvrith to run the crease in tandem – with the hot hand getting the start on any respective night.
It was a good and justifiable strategy, but injuries derailed it by the midway mark of the campaign.
In a game against Arizona on February 10, Elliott left the ice during a shootout after Clayton Keller’s skate clipped his pad. Three days later the Flyers announced he would miss five to six weeks after requiring core muscle surgery.
Situations like that are what make a two-goaltender system so effective – if one goes down, you have another capable starter to take their place.
Neuvirth had also statistically been the best netminder for the Flyers up until that point, posting a .925 sv%. However, the Czech goalie has always been injury prone and just one week after losing Elliott, the predictable happened.
On February 18, Neuvirth exited a game against the Rangers and was replaced by rookie Alex Lyon. Neuvirth was later placed on the IR.
Lyon had played all of last year with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, posting a .912 save percentage in 49 games, but it was quickly clear that he wasn’t ready to lead the team into the playoffs.
Realizing this, the organization traded two draft picks – one of them conditional – to the Detroit Red Wings in exchange for Petr Mrazek.
Fans and management hoped that Mrazek just needed a change of scenery and that he would be able to do enough to get the Orange and Black into the playoffs.
This wasn’t the case.
The 26-year-old struggled mightily, posting a .891 save percentage and a 3.22 GAA in 17 games for the Flyers.
With the exception of a 1-0 shootout win in Montreal – a game that is not won without Mrazek – he looked as though he was never comfortable in the crease.
Philly struggled down the stretch, but they kept their heads above water by picking up loser points and getting enough wins to remain in the hunt for a playoff berth, but it became apparent they needed Elliott back in net.
The Newmarket, ON. Native’s numbers don’t jump off the page – he posted a .909 sv% and a 2.66 GAA across 43 games – but the team looked better and more confident when he was in net, going 23-11-7 with him behind them.
If the Flyers are going to make a run in the playoffs – and win their first playoff round since the 2011-12 season – they will need Elliott to be at his best.
What makes the goaltending so important this series is the opponent they are facing in the first round.
The Penguins may have won back-to-back Stanley Cups, but they are beatable. The Flyers have the firepower to compete with them and at least make it a long series.
Claude Giroux put together a Hart trophy caliber year posting 102 points, he has shown no signs of slowing down at any point this season.
Sean Couturier had a breakout season that fans have long been waiting for – playing alongside Giroux the 2011 first overall pick more than doubled his career high in points.
Jake Voracek also put together a career year – 85 points – finishing fourth in the NHL in assists.
Philly’s big three should be able to compete with the big three of Pittsburgh, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel.
While Pittsburgh's trio put up more total points Philly's big three were not far behind, 279 and 263 respectively.
On defence, Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov have formed one of the top pairings in the NHL.
The Penguins have Kris Letang, who is a top-level defenceman, but beyond that their blue liners are thin, much like the Flyers.
Pittsburgh's model for the last two Stanley Cup winning years has been to surround their top end talent with younger cheaper contracts.
This year the Flyers have done the same with the emergence of young players like Nolan Patrick, Oskar Lindblom, and Travis Konecny all proving they can compete at this level.
As far as goaltending Matt Murray has struggled this season with a .907 save percentage, he could get hot in the playoffs as he has done before, but the same could be said for any goalie.
In the 2009-10 season the Flyers made it to the Stanley Cup Final with Brian Boucher and Michael Leighton in goal, so anything is possible.
Regardless of how the next two months play out the future looks bright for the Flyers - including in the crease - with players like Lyon, Carter Hart, Felix Sandstrom, and Anthony Stolarz all moving closer to the NHL level.
For now though the battle of Pennsylvania is set for another installment and Philly will need Elliot at his best if they are going to win.