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Flyers' playoff chances: Contenders or pretenders?

If literary legends Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde could somehow come to real life as hockey players and show up at a rink near you, there would be one interesting question:

Which one would be dressed in a Flyers uniform?

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It's a fair comment, given the local puck team's recent good — and not so good — behavior.

Are they the astute outfit which produced 10 straight victories in November-December?

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Or the bunch which makes questionable decisions on a nightly basis and has a 3-8-3 post-streak record to show for it?

With 37 games left in the current NHL season, should the Flyers be considered "contenders" or "pretenders" for a possible playoff run?

As their bye-week gets underway, the Flyers have a quite tenuous hold on a wild card spot, just one point up on Carolina and two on Ottawa and Florida.

All three teams have games in hand on the Flyers, who have a 22-18-6 mark, good for 50 points.

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In some ways, this season could become a repeat of last year when the Flyers hit a low point of 15-15-7 just after the holiday week and found themselves in 13th place in the Eastern Conference, seven points behind eighth-place Boston.

Then the Flyers went on one of the greatest closing stretch drives in franchise history, going 26-12-7 the rest of the way and jumping over New Jersey, Boston, Ottawa, Carolina and Toronto to make the playoffs on the final weekend of the season.

The way things are shaping up now, the Flyers might need a similar run again just to get in. Especially because the remainder of their schedule is loaded with so many games against powerhouse Metropolitan Division teams.

Here are some of the reasons why another rush to the finish line might not be in the cards (and some possible fixes):

Inconsistent goaltending: Aside from Steve Mason's promising 8-0 run during the winning streak, he's been good one night, average the next and subpar at times. Even he admits he has to get his act together after getting bombed for four goals in five minutes in Sunday's 5-0 loss at Washington.

What more can be said about Michal Neuvirth and his health issues? He can be brilliant at times (when he's not injured), such as in Thursday night's shootout win over Vancouver, or he can look lost at others, like in Saturday's 6-3 defeat at Boston.

With each passing day, it looks like the Flyers will explore the market — and their farm system — before signing either one of these potential free agents to a new contract in the offseason.

Offensive defense not defensive enough: The Flyers are quick to point out their defensemen lead the league in NHL scoring with over 100 points. The problem is, they're also giving up goals in droves. As of Monday, the Flyers have surrendered an NHL-worst 148 goals. The last team to give up the most goals in a season and make the playoffs: The 1987-88 Los Angeles Kings.

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General Manager Ron Hextall says this isn't the time to experiment with defense prospects Travis Sanheim or Samuel Morin and he might be right. But the mistakes made by Shayne Gostisbehere, Michael Del Zotto, Radko Gudas and Andrew MacDonald can't be ignored.

It's legitimate argument that if Hextall believes the Flyers are a semi-serious contender, he needs to consider adding a defensive piece or two at the trade deadline.

Power-play lineup stagnant: It might be shocking to read this but it might be an idea to replace Gostisbehere (a team-worst minus-17) with veteran Mark Streit at the point. "Ghost's" rookie magic has worn off this year as teams have made defensive adjustments. Streit is a smart playmaker who can dish the puck with the best of them. And he's more defensively sound, something the Flyers need since they lead the NHL in shorthanded goals allowed with eight.

Five-on-five play needs work: Too many players are relying on the power play for the bulk of their offense. Brayden Schenn is a perfect example. Yes, he has a league-leading 11 power-play goals but only three at even strength. Claude Giroux leads the NHL in power-play points but isn't in the top 25 in overall scoring, which tells you something about his five-on-five play (19 points on power play, 17 even-strength).

Coach Dave Hakstol has been mixing lines all year. It might behoove the Flyers to find a couple of lines which work (like Jake Voracek-Sean Couturier-Travis Konecny) and stick with them.

The fact that Hextall doesn't sound too interested in making a major move for someone such as Colorado's Matt Duchene might be his way of saying the Flyers aren't that close to serious contention yet and his long-range plan needs more to time to pan out.

Don't think for a minute Hextall isn't tempted to bring in "some of his own players," just like almost every GM wants to do. Hextall didn't draft Giroux, didn't trade for Voracek, Schenn, Couturier or Mason. Not that he doesn't like these players, it's just that they aren't necessarily his guys.

All he can do is preach patience.

"I think the effort has been sufficient," Hextall said after Sunday's game. "It seems like when something goes against us, it goes against us hard. That's something we have to battle through.

"We can't let a little bit of adversity turn into a lot of adversity. You have to nip it in the bud and we have to do a better job of that."

That Jekyll-Hyde thing can be seen in the numbers: The Flyers are the first team to win at least 10 games in a row, then immediately go winless in at least five in a row since a Colorado team back in the '90s.

Obviously the Flyers need more from veterans such as Matt Read (six goals, but none since Nov. 3), Dale Weise (two goals, four points) and even Wayne Simmonds, who has cooled off of late.

Will Hakstol be able to get them going again as he did last year? Can he make them into playoff contenders instead of pretenders?

"Hak's tried a lot of things," Hextall said. "But in the end, it's a group. We win together, we lose together. We have to react as a group better when things don't go our way.

"We have to keep our heads about this. Nobody's going to get us out of this but the whole group. This isn't about one thing or one move or one player not playing. We as a team have to be better."

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