It’s safe to say that the Flyers 2023-24 season has already been a huge success, even mere days into 2024. They have far exceeded expectations. They have crossed nearly every significant marker in the schedule holding a playoff spot.

Thanksgiving, Christmas, now New Year’s. Next will be the All-Star break. With each passing day, the possibility of an improbable playoff appearance becomes more of a reality.

But for the Flyers to get there, they are in the thick of a crossroads in their schedule, a stretch of games that is to test everything that the team has done so far. Head coach John Tortorella saw this stretch, and the intensity within the games to be played, coming from a mile away.

“At a certain time, when this league gets going, at a certain time, after Christmas, after the holiday, that’s when the grind start’s coming in,” Tortorella said following the Flyers’ 4-2 loss to Nashville on Dec. 21. “If we think we’re going to be this high-flying transition team, stretching, and not forecheck, we’re in for a rude awakening.

“I’m telling you, in January and February, you’re going to have to win games different ways. It gets clamped down. We can, we know how to forecheck. Sometimes it just gets good to you sometimes as far as the style of play and you forget about the grind.”

It’s not like the four-game road trip out of the holiday break has been poor in terms of results. They played a near-perfect road game in Vancouver to open it up. They grinded out an overtime loss to continue making progress in the standings when the legs weren’t there. They battled again, but came up short against Calgary.

They dealt with immediate cross-country travel out of the break. They had a flu bug go through the locker room, and several players are clearly battling the bumps and bruises that go along with the grind. The fact that any of these games has not been a complete blowout on the scoreboard is admirable. 

But all it takes is a look at the standings, specifically in the Metropolitan Division, to see just how quickly a little hiccup in a team’s play can impact things. The Flyers are still in a tie for third place in the Metropolitan Division with the New York Islanders, and just a point behind the Carolina Hurricanes for second place. A look in the other direction shows the Washington Capitals, New Jersey Devils, and Pittsburgh Penguins all deadlocked with 40 points, three back of the Flyers and easily in striking distance. 

Tortorella acknowledged that he was thrilled to get three out of four points to start the road trip. Another struggle to keep up in Calgary made it three out of six. End the road trip with three out of eight, pending the result in Edmonton, and suddenly the Flyers will have lost five of their last six games and the standings could paint an entirely different picture.

To their credit, the Flyers have primarily avoided any playoff talk. In Tortorella’s eyes, it’s too early to even discuss it. The players are trying to emulate their coach with focus strictly on the next game, not the big picture.

But nearly halfway through the NHL season, it’s impossible to ignore what the standings are showing. In the first season after publicly stating the intentions to rebuild, the Flyers are in the thick of a playoff race.

And if they want to stay there, they’re going to have to do what they have done all season, and take that to another level.

Kevin Durso is Flyers insider for 97.3 ESPN. Follow him on social media @Kevin_Durso.

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