VOORHEES, N.J. -- The Philadelphia Flyers have overcome a lot to get to where they are today -- preparing for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.
Coach Peter Laviolette definitely feels that confronting and overcoming a season's worth of adversity has made his team stronger.
"When you overcome enough adversity, which this team certainly has had their share of, you become stronger," Laviolette said. "To a point where, I certainly didn't see it the way it was being written about, but there's no question we've grown as a team. To a point now, where it's a major strength of ours."
The Flyers had a roller-coaster season, starting well and dipping in mid-November when goalie Ray Emery tried to play through abdominal tears. Coach John Stevens was fired on Dec. 4 with his 13-11-1 team in 10th place in the conference. Laviolette's team struggled to play his new high-pressure system, got the hang of it in late December, lost it in mid-March when goalie Michael Leighton and leading scorer Jeff Carter were hurt, and then rebounded behind the strong play of third-string goalie Brian Boucher.
The Flyers qualified for the playoffs on the final day of the season by beating the New York Rangers when Boucher stopped Olli Jokinen's shootout attempt. They were that close to being eliminated in April.
"Game 82 was probably the most pressure-filled game of the year so far," Laviolette said. "Even going through Game 7. You're carrying the entire season with you. You're dragging it. Just a sack of cement that you're dragging into that game and into the shootout.
"I was watching the game afterward on my computer. When you win in overtime, everybody is really happy. They left my computer on and they panned the crowd
and there was this married couple and they were arm-in-arm with each other like they had just been through a war. They weren't happy; they were just tired."
Having barely made the playoffs, the Flyers then made the most of their opportunity.
They wiped out their Atlantic Division rivals, the New Jersey Devils, in five games as Boucher posted the best goaltending numbers of the first round. They fell behind the Boston Bruins 3-0 in the second round before rallying to become only the third team down 0-3 to win a Stanley Cup Playoff series -- despite losing Boucher in Game 5.
Leighton, who replaced Boucher after missing two months with a high ankle sprain, then threw three shutouts at the Canadiens in a five-game Eastern Conference Final that was tougher than it looks on paper.
A relaxed Laviolette greeted the media Tuesday at the Flyers' suburban practice facility, SkateZone, in a rare case of a coach or an athlete waiting until near the end of a season to dispute a few viewpoints expressed during the season, in a nice way, an instructional way. He had said a few times that there was no way for the media to know the changes that were taking place behind closed doors.
A local reporter started a question, "For most of the season you were around .500, when did you see ..." and Laviolette gently cut him off.
"I'm going to give you my best and quickest description of the season," Laviolette said. "I don't think it's as up-and-down as you might lay it out there to be. When I first got here, there was definitely a learning curve and I think we went 2-7-1 in the first 10 games. Just before Christmastime and up to when we lost Jeff Carter and Michael Leighton, which were almost simultaneous, I believe we were the second-best team in the National Hockey League in that span of two months.
"Then we had those two injuries and we lost our footing for a bit. (Brian Boucher) came in and he hadn't played for a while and we lost our leading goal-scorer (Carter). Eventually, 'Boosh' found his rhythm in the last three weeks and was outstanding. He carried us. Jeff Carter came back in our lineup and we found our
footing again at the end. There were probably 10 or 11 games where we lost the grip. We were only four points behind Pittsburgh when those guys went down.
"I don't look at it like that. I look at it like we played an awful lot of good hockey. We did a lot of good things down the stretch. We just had to come so far to get it done that when you had one of those bad games or you suffered a couple of major injuries and you had a little bit of a setback, it became devastating.
Defenseman Kimmo Timonen said Laviolette made the team get fitter and more disciplined. Timonen said he had constant conversations with Laviolette about his play and the coach's expectations, as did every player.
"Our practices were better, right away," Timonen said. "I think that's been the key for us. We've been practicing better, maybe that we did with Johnny (Stevens). The demanding level is even higher than Johnny. Johnny's was (high) but he wants everybody to be in good shape and play his system. But the biggest thing to me was his demanding level."
Timonen said it's easier responding to that demanding level when you know the coach has won the Stanley Cup.
"Sure, I think we needed that," Timonen said. "I've been here three years and it's been up-and-down every year. We managed to make the playoffs but not this far. So I think we needed a little change there. To bring in a guy like Lavi, he's, like you said, experienced this kind of run and he knows what he's talking about. I like the way he handled the players."
"I don't think it's about right and wrong," Laviolette said. "They were very well coached before I got here. It's your beliefs on how things should be. Everybody's are different. There's probably not a right way and a wrong way and it's probably been done a hundred different ways. The most important thing is that the players buy into it and work hard at it. Ultimately, your organization experiences success.
"I said this before when I first got here, the biggest thing is trying to put an identity on the team that the coach believes in and that the players buy into and they go out and play and they accept that. Our Flyers guys did that. They worked hard at the system and they worked hard at practice. They worked hard at the game and they never quit. They were resilient."
This is Laviolette's second trip to the Stanley Cup Final. He won with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006. He was asked how his experience of going through four rounds will help him and the Flyers against Chicago.
"You're always learning from going through things," he said. "When you start coaching, you're constantly learning, even after you've found success. You learn all the time. You learn from the good times. You learn from the bad times. You learn from experiences in life. It's exciting. I'm sure it's not going to be a carbon copy. I'm sure there will be challenges and different scenarios that come up through the series but I'm sure that going through it once, you have that resource to grab onto.
"My expectation when I take over a team is to win the Stanley Cup," Laviolette said. "It was said at the press conference and it was said early on to the players. We talked about it a lot. That's everybody's agenda. If it's not a team's agenda, then they're probably not going to get there. Through the course of the season, you go through your trials and tribulations, your ups and downs, you build your team and keep on pushing. That's where you want to be when you take a job and, yes, I thought there were good players here.
"The best way to find success is to get everybody on the same page as quickly as possible," Laviolette said. "It took a little bit."