Can Sam Ersson hold on to lead the Flyers to the playoffs?

Philadelphia Flyers v Washington Capitals
Philadelphia Flyers v Washington Capitals / Patrick Smith/GettyImages

With only nine games to go during this wild ride of a hockey season, the Philadelphia Flyers are still defying the experts and clinging to a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

The good news is that they've just come out of a 7-game stretch that was an absolute gauntlet of tough competition, and they managed six points. It wasn't an inspiring showing, but it was good enough to hold off the likes of the Washington Capitals and the Detroit Red Wings, at least for the moment.

The bad news, however, is that their rookie goalie Sam Ersson is looking completely spent. Lost in the shuffle of the frenetic third period of the Flyers' 6-5 overtime loss to the Rangers is the fact that Ersson could not buy a single save. With the Flyers entering the third period with a 2-1 lead, Ersson surrendered five goals on the final nine shots he faced in the third and overtime. He can't be faulted for all of them, but the moment seemed like it was too big for him, even as the Flyers were matching the Rangers goal for goal against all-world goalie Igor Shesterkin at the other end.

Ersson has been overworked, although it's been out of necessity since he became the team's de facto No. 1 in the wake of Carter Hart leaving the team. And matters have only gotten more desperate since the Flyers suffered multiple injuries to their blueline right around the same time they made the difficult decision to trade away the steady Sean Walker.

Before this season started, if you'd have told the Flyers that young players like Adam Ginning and Ronnie Attard would be playing minutes in front of Sam Ersson in goal in the last week of March, they probably wouldn't have blinked. After all, such a scenario would likely mean that the Flyers were out of the playoff race by a dozen points, which was acceptable as part of the rebuild they've espoused. But for a team that still has the inside edge on a postseason spot? It's borderline absurd. What other option do they have, however?

Ersson's potential creasemates, Cal Petersen and Felix Sandstrom, haven't gotten the job done. And so it's been completely on Ersson to shoulder a load that he shouldn't have to, and the team is now going to sink or swim with him. Full credit to Ersson for backstopping the Flyers to some big wins this year over teams like the Panthers, Bruins, and Maple Leafs. But it sure would be nice if the team's playoff chances weren't entirely riding on him to make every key stop, which he's only shown himself to be partially capable of so far.

Maybe the Flyers decide to toss Alexei Kolosov into the fire to give Ersson a break. Frankly, he couldn't be any worse than the other options they've tried, although you wonder about wrecking Kolosov's confidence right away in such a pressure cooker. These are tough decisions that need to be made in desperate times such as these. The Flyers only play one more back-to-back this season, so maybe Ersson will start eight of the final nine regardless of how his body holds up.

There has to be some legitimate long-term worry about Ersson breaking down here. Maybe he is destined to be a very good tandem goalie in this league, capable of giving you 30-40 starts per year. But he's currently sporting a .880 save percentage over his last 22 games, a pretty large sample, and that doesn't inspire much confidence going forward after he sported a .911 mark as part of a timeshare over the first three months of the season.

There are no good answers here, as Ersson is simply 'the guy' for this stretch run, good or bad. As he goes, so will the team, and we can only hope it's enough to get the Flyers over the finish line. If and when the playoffs get here, that's a whole different beast entirely, but that's a worry for another day.