|Jeff Carter and R.J. Umberger's postseason stands in stark contrast to two seasons ago. Carter video | Umberger video|
Both had success with the Philadelphia Phantoms, the Flyers' American Hockey League affiliate, which won the 2005 Calder Cup championship.
Both made it to the Flyers as rookies the following season, and both were expected to be second-line scoring options in Philadelphia's first-round playoff series with the Buffalo Sabres.
And both were knocked out -- Carter figuratively, Umberger literally -- in six games by the Sabres.
Now, though, both have used strong regular seasons as foundations for strong starts to the 2008 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Umberger and Carter scored the goals in the Flyers' 2-0 win in Game 2, and Carter added two more goals and assisted on Mike Knuble's game-winning goal in the 4-3 double-overtime victory in Game 4.
Their success this time in the postseason stands in stark contrast to two seasons ago, when they combined for one goal (Umberger) and a minus-7 rating.
Umberger, though, isn't remembered for his playoff goal, it's for the bell-ringing hit he took in Game 1 from Sabres defenseman Brian Campbell. The blast left Umberger with a broken nose and a concussion. While he returned after sitting out one game, Umberger admits he was far from recovered.
"I don't think I fully recovered the whole playoffs," Umberger says now. "I wasn't myself, I was tentative. … The rest of those playoffs I was not myself. It was just about getting through it."
Daniel Briere, then with the Sabres, had a front-row seat for their attempt. He said he could see the moment as an overwhelming one.
"First time in the playoffs, I've been there before, too," said Briere. "You're just, at first, a little tentative, you're looking around, wondering, 'What's going to happen now? How does it work?' "
Umberger said the noise from a jam-packed HSBC Arena is one of the things that stood out to him.
"It was so loud," he said. "They came at you so hard, they were so talented, so good. There were nerves. You didn't know what to expect. It was definitely an experience."
That experience, as miserable as it might have been, is the foundation Carter and Umberger can use for future postseason success.
"You need a reference point for what to expect," said Flyers coach John Stevens. "Now that they've been in the playoffs before, it's not all new to them. It's not like they're seeing things for the first time. They have a reference point; you don't have to go on someone else's assessment of what it's going to be like. They've been there and now they come in more matured, more experienced and better prepared to have success in this atmosphere."
Carter had experience in that atmosphere in the past. In 2005, Carter jumped from the Ontario Hockey League into the American Hockey League playoffs with the Philadelphia Phantoms, the Flyers' AHL farm team. After a three-game regular-season warm-up, he jumped full-bore into his first professional postseason.
His landing would have been the envy of an Olympic gymnast.
Carter led all AHL players with 12 goals and 23 points as he led the Phantoms to the 2005 Calder Cup championship.
Now he's taking that experience and producing at the NHL level.
"I feel good out there, I feel a lot of confidence," said Carter. "I had some chances the first game, but I was gripping the stick a little bit. It was the first game, you've got the nerves. I felt good in the second game. … I'm feeling pretty good right now."
As obvious as it was to Briere two years ago that Carter and Umberger looked overwhelmed, it's just as obvious how in-the-moment they are now.
"They're playing with a lot more confidence," he said. "They know what's coming at them. They're just much more prepared to face these playoffs. It's not a knock on anybody. Your first playoffs, you don't know how things are going to shape up, you're a little tentative. I think now what I see in them is a lot more confidence. They're going out there a lot more prepared, a lot more focused. They're not wondering what's going to happen, they're making things happen."
Stevens, who coached Carter and Umberger with the 2005 Phantoms, said it's the natural maturation process for two young players.
"Those guys now are playing in all the same situations now they played in the American League and juniors," said Stevens. "You don't just immediately go into those situations, there's more experienced guys ahead of you. They worked their way into those situations where they're counted on at key times.
"I just think they've got the experience, they're bigger, stronger men now. They're better conditioned, they're mentally tougher, and now they're playing the kind of game they used to play in the American League, but now they're playing it at this level."
Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org.