For the second-straight season, the Philadelphia Flyers
had their season ended in the playoffs by the Pittsburgh Penguins
The post-series feelings, however, are completely different.
While the story of the 2007-08 season was their stunning trip to the Eastern Conference Finals one season removed from having the League's worst record, the book on the 2008-09 season was surprising in a whole other way.
While the Flyers improved in wins, points and place in the final standings this season, they lacked an 82-game consistency that was obvious from the start. The Flyers lost their first six games, then won their next four, then lost three straight.
A 17-4-5 run between Nov. 11 and Jan. 3 pushed them to the top of the Atlantic Division standings. The season took a turn, however, on Feb. 26. Flyers GM Paul Holmgren
had deftly avoided banging into the salary cap most of the season thanks to a series of long-term injuries. It all caught up to them in late February, as Daniel Briere
was ready to return from abdominal surgery. He couldn't be activated, however, until the Flyers shed some salary, which they did by waiving popular veterans Glen Metropolit
and Ossi Vaananen
, who then were claimed by Montreal and Vancouver, respectively, followed by rookie Claude Giroux
's return to the minor leagues. Another popular player, Scottie Upshall
, was traded to Phoenix for Daniel Carcillo
to open up more space in order to bring back Giroux.
The Flyers were 7-3-0 in February to that point, but they struggled home, going 11-10-2, including 4-5-1 in their last 10 games.
Despite that, the Flyers could have locked up the fourth seed and home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs with two wins in their last three games. Instead, they lost at the Rangers, beat the last-place Islanders by a goal, and blew a 3-2 third-period lead at home to the Rangers in what ended as a season-closing 4-3 defeat.
There were salary cap issues tied to that loss, as well. Jamie Fritsch
, signed to an amateur tryout contract weeks after his college season had ended, was on the blue line in the final period. Ryan Parent
would have been there, but his groin was injured and the Flyers didn't have enough cap space to call up a player from the minor leagues. A puck hit Fritsch in the chest and dropped him to his feet. He couldn't find it, but the Rangers' Aaron Voros
did. He slid a pass to Blair Betts
, who beat Marty Biron from in close for the winning goal.
That meant a trip to Pittsburgh to start the playoffs -- not an altogether daunting task. While the Flyers won just one of three games in Pittsburgh, they lost one in overtime and another in a shootout. But the Flyers were miserable in a penalty-marred Game 1 that saw them hand the Penguins eight power plays and a 4-1 win.
They were better in Game 2, but a penalty on Jeff Carter
with less than five minutes left in the third period led to Jordan Staal
's tying goal, and a pair of penalties in overtime gave the Penguins a two-man advantage and a 2-0 series lead when Bill Guerin
The good play continued in Game 3, as the Flyers jumped to an early lead and cruised to a 6-3 victory behind a pair of goals from Simon Gagne
and a goal and an assist from Giroux. Game 4 saw the Flyers fire 46 shots on Pens goalie Marc-Andre Fleury
, but only Carcillo's late goal got by him and Pittsburgh took a 3-1 series lead back to Pittsburgh for Game 5.
Biron answered with a dynamite effort at Mellon Arena, stopping all 28 shots thrown at him, and Arron Asham
, Giroux and Mike Knuble
scored in a 3-0 season-saving victory. The Flyers felt like a confident bunch returning to Philadelphia for Game 6.
"It's weird," Briere told NHL.com. "We're down 3-1 but it doesn't feel that way."
"In our room we feel like we're getting stronger," Mike Knuble
said. "After that first game and halfway though the second we've been a different team and progressively getting better."
In front of 20,072 roaring fans in Game 6, the Flyers jumped ahead early, getting goals by Knuble and Joffrey Lupul
51 seconds apart late in the first period, and a power-play goal by Briere early in the second gave them a 3-0 lead.
That's where things turned. Pucks started bouncing the Penguins' way as first Mark Eaton
and then Sidney Crosby
batted pucks out of midair and past Biron, the latter tying the game. Then early in the third, the Flyers were caught on a line change when Evgeni Malkin
dashed into the Philadelphia end and dropped a pass for Sergei Gonchar
, and his wrister from the right circle got past Biron and effectively ended the Flyers' season. Crosby added an empty-net goal in the final seconds to secure the 5-3 victory.
It was a stunning turn of events, and a bitter, abrupt end to the season.
"We had ourselves where we needed to be," said Flyers coach John Stevens
. "You get a 3-0 lead, it should be over there."
It is, but not the way the Flyers wanted it.
There were some positives to emerge this season. The Flyers were the only team in the League with six 25-goal scorers, puck movement out of the defensive zone was improved, and there was great development from young players like Giroux, Darroll Powe
, Jared Ross
and Luca Sbisa
Giroux has picked up one very important fan.
"He reminds me a whole lot of a young Bobby Clarke
," team chairman Ed Snider said of Giroux. "I know they talk about other players, but I saw every game Clarke ever played and he sure looks the same to me. He's a great addition to our future and he's still a young kid who didn't play the full season. He's very impressive."
There will be changes this summer, however.
"This team does not need major changes," Snider said. "(GM) Paul (Holmgren) will tweak it where he has to. The coaching staff and Paul will analyze where we need a little improvement and we'll work hard to try and get it."
Contact Adam Kimelman at email@example.com