It wasn’t long ago that the Philadelphia Flyers faced a do-or-die situation in the 82nd game of their regular season. Win, and a playoff berth awaited. Lose, and their season was over. A month later, the Flyers are on the doorstep of a Stanley Cup Finals appearance. What happened?
To start, the playoffs happened. While cliché, the playoffs really are an entirely new season. The Flyers, Washington Capitals, and Montreal Canadiens have all proven as much. The Flyers spent most of the 2009-2010 season overcoming injuries and fighting off accusations of locker room issues. Instead of folding and looking toward next year, the Flyers regrouped to become the grittiest team in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They erased the overwhelmingly favored New Jersey Devils with relative ease in round one, and followed that up by treating fans to one of the greatest comebacks in history. Overcoming a three games to none deficit is an amazing accomplishment. We could spend 1,200 words describing such a feat. As enjoyable as that may be, let’s focus on what enabled the Flyers to pull off the greatest comeback the NHL has seen in thirty years.
As previously mentioned, the Flyers have overcome a rash of injuries, both in the regular season and the playoffs. They’ve essentially advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals with two goalies that were each listed as the team’s third goalie at one point this season. The Flyer’s top scorer and most lethal offensive threat (Jeff Carter) struggled through a rough year and was essentially lost for the playoffs early in the first round. Another offensive threat and veteran leader was also injured for a chunk of the playoffs and just recently returned to action. With or without those injuries, the Flyers are hardly one of the NHL’s elite squads anyway (as far as talent is concerned). Ask any NHL fan from outside the Delaware Valley to name two players from the Philadelphia Flyers and they’ll respond, “Chris Pronger” and “Ron Hextall.” The Flyers aren’t laden with superstars or marquee players. They’re a hardworking, resolute group that have found their groove at the right time, and refuse to roll over when logic tells them they should. (This was perfectly exemplified in game 4 when the Bruins tied the game in the final minutes to force overtime. Most teams down 0-3 in that situation close up shop. The Flyers outplayed Boston in overtime to stay alive and momentum shifted to the Flyers. Tying the game late and then losing was the worst possible scenario for Boston. It gave too much confidence to Philadelphia and deflated Boston more than an outright loss would have. All the pressure immediately shifted to Boston. They never recovered.) Like the city they represent, these Flyers are fighters. They’re Rocky Balboa, Vince Papale, and Bobby Clarke all wrapped into one.
While noble, overcoming injuries and playing with heart isn’t enough to win in the playoffs. An unheralded complementary cast is necessary to succeed. Scottie Hartnell and Claude Giroux won’t make Sportscenter’s Top Plays on a nightly basis, but they will make a difference in a long series. TNT’s basketball analyst, Doug Collins often uses the term, “50/50” plays. These are the small plays that appear insignificant but ultimately decide a series. Obviously, they’re referred to as 50/50 plays because they’re entirely up for grabs. These plays aren’t given freely though, they’re earned. Hustle, hard work, determination, and grit win most 50/50 plays. Hartnell and Giroux have provided the Flyers with an overwhelming majority of 50/50 plays. Giroux has an uncanny ability to find the open man and create offense, while Hartnell has thrown his body around to clear a puck, insight some energy, and even score a significant goal when needed. These guys are pocket knives. Whatever you need from them, they’re willing and able to provide it. You can’t win in the playoffs without “pocket knife” players.
In addition to the pocket knives, a successful playoff team requires heroic performances. Even though he looks as if he skates in mud through open ice, Chris Pronger has proven his worth throughout these playoffs. He’s big, mean, and more importantly, the reason Flyer goalies have had mostly clear views of the shots coming their way. Pronger clears the front of the net like a plow, and he isn’t afraid to deliver or absorb a severe blow in the process.
On the offensive end, the Flyers are getting “who are you, and what did you do with your old self?” performances from Danny Briere and Simon Gagne. Fittingly, both players have been tagged as career underachievers for the Flyers. In the second round especially, Briere and Gagne have carried the scoring load. Both scored goals at critical junctures of the series. Gagne returned from injury to net the overtime game winner to avoid the sweep in game four, and then sealed the series with his late 3rd period goal in game 7. Briere has scored big goals throughout the series as well and has also been a catalyst for the Flyers offense. It took awhile, but Briere is finally playing like the player the Flyers thought they were getting when they plucked him from Buffalo three years ago.
Even more critical to the Flyers success is the character of the team. The Flyers never stop fighting, always play with urgency, and never believe they’re finished. These characteristics are all a direct reflection of leadership. In hockey terms, the Flyers’ captain is a bad man. That man is Mike Richards. Over the past two seasons, Richards has received harsh criticism for his leadership skills-he’s not tough enough, not focused, stays out too late, etc… Well guess what? When your team claws its way back from a 0-3 deficit to win a seven game series, that means your captain knows what he’s doing, and he’s doing it well.
Great athletes rise from adverse situations. It took Richards some time to figure out his role as captain, but he’s certainly responded to that call now. Watch any Flyers game over the past month and one player will stick out. He’s the player that goes all out for an entire shift. He scores, he facilitates, he defends, he fights, he hits, and he’s the fiercest player on the ice. For lack of a better term, he RUMBLES. Now look at that man’s number; it’s number 18. Mike Richards has grown into the leadership role the Flyers knew he was capable of when they slapped that “C” on his sweater. He couldn’t have picked a better time.
The Flyers playoff run is full of feel-good stories and obviously, a historic revival. They discarded long time nemesis Martin Brodeur and the New Jersey Devils in round one, poetically fought off a 0-3 series deficit to win game seven 4-3 after trailing 0-3 early in the first period, and have managed to gain home ice for the conference finals as a seventh seed. It’s a great story. Now here’s the inconvenient truth of the situation; if the Flyers don’t win the Stanly Cup, or at the very least advance to the Cup Finals, it will all be mostly forgotten.
I know, I know, you’re angry and think I’m wrong. Settle down and listen. It’s not fun, but this is the way sports work. If the Boston Red Sox don’t go on to win the 2004 World Series after storming back from 0-3 against the Yankees, do we remember that comeback like we do today? No, not really. Maybe we remember the comeback, but it’s severely watered down. Look at 4th and 26. It was/is perhaps the greatest play in NFL playoff history. Unfortunately, the miraculous fourth down conversion is mostly ignored in the sports world because the Eagles wet the bed against Carolina in the NFC Championship. If a title doesn’t follow a great playoff moment, that moment is ultimately for naught. It’s a harsh reality, but also very true.
Right now the Flyers’ second round comeback against the Boston Bruins is historic. For it to become legendary, a parade down Broad Street must ensue. We remember the Red Sox’s rally in the ALCS because they won the World Series. We adore Rocky’s determination and toughness because he eventually took down Ivan Drago. Without a Stanley Cup, we’ll have a nice story and fond memories of the 2010 Flyers, but nothing legendary.