The Flyers are in the Stanley Cup Finals. The FLYERS are in the Stanley Cup Finals. Not Pittsburgh, not New Jersey, not Washington, not Boston, not Buffalo, not any of the top-seeded Eastern Conference teams. The 7th seeded Philadelphia Flyers have made it all the way and now only four wins separate them from their first Stanley Cup in 35 years. With a long 82 games season and three grueling rounds of NHL playoff action, it is easy to look past exactly what got us here. Here’s a look at some main events leading up to this wonderful playoff run:
The Flyers were a team coming out of the pre-season with huge expectations not only from their passionate fans, but from the press as well. Many “experts” had this team as one of the front-runners for the Stanley Cup, and they did not disappoint for the first few games. They opened up on the road, with back-to-back decisive wins against Carolina and New Jersey. Ray Emery looked solid, and the Flyers were scoring. Then came the home-opener against the Washington Capitals that may have been one of the best games in the NHL all year. Tons of scoring and good play made the game go into overtime, which saw Danny Briere scoring the overtime winner on his birthday to give the Flyers three-straight wins. This team was looking good, and the Ray Emery gamble seemed to be paying off.
Emery’s Injury and Stevens Fired
John Stevens was fired on December 4th after the team was playing very poorly and they weren’t winning regularly anymore. They seemed to have lost the fire they had in the beginning of the season, and Peter Laviolette was hired to be the new head coach. His road wouldn’t be easy, as he had a contender team that was underachieving greatly. To make matters worse Ray Emery seemed to had lost his stride in the month of November, and was letting some soft goals in. This mystery would be solved as we found out on December 8th that Emery was placed on injured reserve for a torn abdomen. During this stretch of many losses, the Flyers lost key players in Simon Gagne and Darroll Powe to injury. Checking center and penalty killer extraordinaire Blair Betts was also out for a period of time, along with bottom pairing defenseman Ryan Parent and Ole-Kristian Tollefsen. These injuries did not help the Flyers in their quest to rectify their early-season woes. This caused roster moves to be made such as Oskars Bartulis and Danny Syvret to be moved up to play some NHL games.
Waiver Wire and Winter Classic
Two waiver wire pickups happened this year, and possibly two of the better moves done by the Flyers in the past couples years. Defenseman Lucas Krajicek was picked up on waivers from Tampa Bay, and goaltender Michael Leighton was picked up on waivers by Carolina after it was announced that Ray Emery would miss the rest of the season after re-injuring himself after returning from injury. Krajicek would immediately become a main member of the Flyers defensive corps, often being paired with Kimmo Timonen. Michael Leighton got his chance to start in mid-December after Brian Boucher went down with a finger laceration injury, and he became the number 1 goaltender for the Flyers. They finished December with four straight wins and ready to head into the New Year for the much-anticipated Winter Classic. The Bruins and Flyers were old-time rivals, and they were looking to re-ignite that rivalry on a cold winter day in Boston at Fenway Park. The game saw a lot of hard-hitting, fast-paced hockey. Dan Carcillo and Shawn Thornton became the first players to have a fight in the Winter Classic, and the game was tied at 1 heading into overtime. The Bruins would score in OT to win in front of their home crowd and the season continued.
The Olympic Break, Trade Deadline, and Injuries
The team traded Tollefsen and a 5th round pick to the Red Wings to pick up their salary dump in a winger named Ville Leino. His impact would not be felt immediately as he was the odd-man out and would be a scratch for most games. The Flyers had a pretty good month in January, and went into the last four games before the Olympic Break with two home and home series with the Devils and Canadiens. The Flyers swept both of them, and things were feeling and looking good. Coming out of the break, the Flyers got some wins but ultimately struggled out of the gate in the month of March. They passed on making a move at the trade deadline even though rumors were running around that they were interested in a few goalies and defensemen. To make matters worse, goaltender Michael Leighton went down shortly after the deadline in Nashville on March 16th, with less than a month before the playoffs. Leighton was playing at a high level and carrying the Flyers for much of the second half of the season, so Brian Boucher was back to the starting job again. Then, Jeff Carter went down with a broken foot and would be out for 3-4 weeks. Losing your second starting goalie and one of your top scorers can deflate a team and they could have packed it in at that point… but they didn’t.
Boosh and the Last Game Shootout
Brian Boucher had a lot of trouble at first, letting some soft goals in each game before settling in. The Flyers played the Canadiens late in the season and dominated the whole game, but still came up short as Jaroslav Halak stole the game and they lost 1-0. The Flyers then beat the Wings and Toronto, leaving two games left. A home and home with the Rangers. The Flyers needed to win at least one to make the playoffs, and the Rangers needed two. The Flyers came up short in the first game at Madison Square Garden, and then came back to Philly on Sunday. That is when the season turned around. The Flyers were down a goal going into the second period, and were throwing everything they had at King Henrik. Lundqvist was stopping everything and doing everything he could to keep his team in playoff contention. Matt Carle would finally find the back of the net to tie it at 1 going into the third. The third period was fast-paced as ever as both teams refused to go down. It would go into overtime, and then, a shootout.
It’s worth a watch, we all know what happened. The Flyers would get the 7th seed, and would face the 2nd seeded New Jersey Devils. This was fate playing into our hands. We go against one of the best shootout goalies in the final game of the year for the playoffs, and win? Now we play the only team we had no trouble beating in the regular season? AND Jeff Carter is back? Since when are the hockey gods on our side? The Flyers stole the first game in New Jersey then lost the second one, but earned the all-important split of the first two road games. In Game 3 it went to overtime, and one of the most unlikely heroes sealed the deal for the Flyers:
Dan Carcillo… the “goon of all goons” scores the game-winner and sets up a 2-1 lead. The Flyers would come out the next game and dominated the Devils, with Carter finally finding his niche and scoring a pair of goals, right before breaking his other foot. And then it was revealed that Simon Gagne also fractured his toe so he would miss time. The Flyers wound up going back to Jersey and finishing off the Devils in 5 games even with the key injuries, including Lappy taking a slapshot to the face and being out “indefinitely” along with Carter. Next opponent would not be announced until the Canadiens would knock off the Capitals, leaving the Boston Bruins for us to take care of.
History Was Made
The Flyers had a long layoff between the first and second round, and it showed as they had trouble finding their bearings in the first period of Game 1 in Boston. They dropped the first one in a disappointing overtime loss, and would drop the next one in Boston as well. On the return to Philly, the Flyers went down 3-0 going into Game 4 and things were not looking good for our team. Fans were beginning to expect the worst. The mantra was “don’t get swept”, and the Flyers came out Game 4 ready to play. They received some great news as Gagne returned for Game 4, hoping to give his team a boost. The Bruins showed that they were not going to give anything easy, and the game went into overtime. Gagne played through pain the whole game, and managed to start what would become a miracle:
The Flyers would not be swept in the second round, and then went to Boston and took Game 5 in dominating fashion, but not without losing Brian Boucher to injury. Michael Leighton miraculously was back for his first game since his ankle injury, so he replaced Boosh and finished the shutout; sending it back to Philly. Game 6 showed the crowd with signs of “History Will Be Made” and some fan fervor in support of becoming only the 3rd team in NHL history to come back from a 3-0 deficit. The Flyers edged the Bruins out, and set it up for a deciding Game 7 in Boston. From the faceoff, the Bruins used their crowd and came out firing on all cylinders. They were quickly up 3-0, before the time-out by Lavvy was called. The Flyers starting their slow climb back and got a flukey-type goal by rookie James VanRiemsdyk who had been snake-bitten for much of the postseason. The Flyers focused on winning the next period, and got two key goals by Scott Hartnell and Danny Briere. It was tied 3-3 heading into the third period in a Game 7, there’s not much more that could make it more nerve-racking. Simon Gagne started the comeback in Philly in Game 4, and he sure as hell decided to finish it:
Two Teams of Destiny
The Habs were coming off miraculous series wins against the Caps and Pens, just as the Flyers were coming off the miraculous comeback in their series with Boston. The undersized Habs were confident that they could finish off this Flyers team, because they finished off two of the top teams in the conference. It didn’t matter, as it was apparent in Game 1 when the Flyers came out with home-ice advantage and dominated with a 6-0 victory. In Game 2, the Flyers earned another shutout with a 3-0 victory. The Habs were going back home and looking for some footing, and found some in Game 3 with a 5-1 victory and many Habs fans believing the tides had turned. The tides would turn, but not the way Montreal had hoped. The Flyers got two key guys back in Lappy and Carter and would be available to play Game 4. Carcillo and Nodl would sit, and the lines were boosted. The Flyers went back to the Bell Centre with their wounded back in Game 4 and shut them out for the third time with a 3-0 lead. Game 5 was going back to Philly with a chance to reach their first Stanley Cup Final in years, yet the Flyers went down 1-0 quickly into the game. Then the captain himself decided to take matters into his own hands during a very important penalty kill:
The Flyers hung on to win 4-2, with a goal by Asham, and a goal and empty netter by Carter. The Habs were gone, and all of a sudden the Flyers were the top dogs in the East, finally reaching the Finals.
The Blackhawks are no easy team, and there’s a reason why they’re in the Finals. The Flyers’ season has been full of ups, and plenty of downs yet they are still here, they’re still breathing, they’re still fighting. The regular season saw them barely making the playoffs, and then beating the odds against the Devils and then coming back 3-0 against the Bruins… They dispatched the Canadiens recently to get here, and now all that stands in their way are FOUR WINS. 35 years is a long time. Veterans like Ian Laperriere, Kimmo Timonen, Blair Betts, Simon Gagne, and Danny Briere all have not yet won a Stanley Cup and this is their first appearance in the Finals. The clock is ticking, and this young Chicago team will be desperate to win their first Cup too… You’ve gotta think since the Flyers took such a hard road this season to get to this point, they will be pretty good at facing adversity and will come into Game 1 focused. My money’s on my Flyers, and you’ll find out why shortly before Game 1 when I post my final series preview of this postseason. It’s been quite a ride this postseason, let’s not let it end as losers.