The 2003-04 season marked the end of an era in Flyers hockey and the National Hockey League. In the final season of the pre-salary cap era, the veteran nucleus that sustained the Flyers through much of the late 1990s to early 2000s took their final shot together at delivering a Stanley Cup to Philadelphia. They fell a bit short of their goal – losing a hard-fought Eastern Conference Final in seven games to the eventual champion Tampa Bay Lightning – but provided a lot of thrills along the way.
|The Flyers initiated their "Orange Crush" for each home game during the playoffs. (click photo to open 2004 Playoff photo gallery) |
The primary on-ice and locker room leader of the Flyers’ 2004 postseason drive was team captain Keith Primeau. The 32-year-old center forever erased the perception that he was a playoff underachiever by scoring nine goals (many of them critical to victory) and 16 points in the team’s 18 playoff games.
“Everything went right for me during the playoffs that year, but it’s disappointing that we weren’t able to go all the way,” Primeau recalled last year. “We had a team that we all felt was good enough to win the Cup but Tampa Bay was just a little bit better than us in that series.”
Apart from scoring the game-winning goal in the fifth overtime of the historic fourth game of the Flyers’ 2000 Eastern Conference Semifinal series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Primeau’s pre-2004 playoff history was rarely mentioned in a positive light. In 110 career playoff games leading into the 2004 postseason, Primeau had managed just 9 goals and 41 points.
During the 2003-04 regular season, Primeau had to adapt to a new role assigned to him by head coach Ken Hitchcock. Formerly a second-line player with the Detroit Red Wings and Flyers and a first-line center with the Carolina Hurricanes, the three-time 30-goal scorer was asked by Hitchcock to focus primarily on defense as the club’s third-line center. His regular season offensive output dropped to 7 goals and 22 points in a season in which he was limited to 54 games by a concussion and a broken thumb.
Despite Primeau’s modest regular-season offensive output, his play when healthy was a huge part of the reason why the club finished first in the Atlantic Division with 101 points. That season, the Flyers scored 43 more goals (229 GF – 186 GA) than they gave up. Hitchcock credits Primeau with setting an example of two-way play for the rest of the team.
“When a player like Keith sacrifices his body to block shots on the penalty kill, pays attention to detail and holds himself accountable, everyone else takes notice. We had a lot of character players on that team and a lot of veterans who had been through the wars many times, but Preems definitely helped set the tone,” Hitchcock said.
|Keith Primeau & Simon Gagne led the charge for the Flyers during their run to the Eastern Conference Final. |
The 2003-04 Flyers were a veteran-laden team. Most of its key players outside 23-year-old Simon Gagne (24 goals), 26-year-old center Michal Handzus (20 goals, 58 points), 27-year old top defenseman Kim Johnsson (13 goals, 42 points, plus-16), rookie defenseman Joni Pitkanen (27 points in 71 games) and 25-year-old playoff starting goalie Robert Esche had already passed their 30th birthday by the start of the season.
Leading scorer Mark Recchi (26 goals, 75 points) was 35 years old. John LeClair (23 goals, 55 points) was 34 at the start of the season. Other key veteran players included 33-year-old Jeremy Roenick (19 goals, 47 points in 62 games) and Tony Amonte (20 goals, 53 points), 30-year-old Sami Kapanen (12 goals, 30 regular season points). They were ably assisted by 33-year-old midseason acquisition Alexei Zhamnov (5 goals, 18 points in 20 games), 34-year-old defenseman Eric Desjardins (limited to 47 games and no playoff action), 32-year-old defenseman Marcus Ragarnsson (7 goals, plus-12 in 70 games), 31-year-old enforcer Donald Brashear (6 goals, 212 penalty minutes), and 35-year-old trade deadline acquisition Vladimir Malakhov.
Having so many older veterans on the team was a mixed blessing for the Flyers. On the positive side, the team knew how to win and understood how to manage its energy during the regular season to prepare for the playoffs. On the downside, they were more prone to fatigue in back-to-back games, many of the older vets had become injury prone and were slower to recover than in their youth.
The injury factor ultimately proved critical in the playoffs. The Flyers wound up badly shorthanded on the blueline – so much so that Kapanen had to switch from forward to defense for much of the latter portion of the postseason. The team’s will remained as strong as ever, but their tiring legs ultimately could not carry them past the younger and healthier Tampa Bay club in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Despite their division winning regular season, the Flyers faced a brutal road to the third round of the playoffs. In the first round, the third-seeded Flyers drew the New Jersey Devils (100 points). Philly dispatched their longtime nemesis in five games. The big offensive stars for Philly were Zhamnov (3 goals, 8 points), Roenick (2 goals, 7 points) and Primeau (2 goals, 1 assist, plus-three). The series clinching game proved costly, as Barry Ashbee Trophy winning defenseman Johnsson was lost to a broken bone in his right hand. He returned after missing three games but was not nearly as effective remainder of the playoffs as he was in the Devils series.
In the second round, the Flyers played the Toronto Maple Leafs. The clubs had also met the previous season with Philadelphia prevailing in a seven-game war of attrition. Once again, the series exacted a heavy physical toll on the Flyers. Philly built up a three games to none lead in the series only for the Maple Leafs to storm back and win the next two.
Game 6 went to overtime with the score tied, 2-2, after the Leafs rallied late in regulation to force the extra frame. At the 7:39 mark of the extra frame, Jeremy Roenick capped one of the most memorable shifts in franchise history by scoring the series winning goal.
On the sequence, a woozy Sami Kapanen staggered and twice fell down after absorbing a heavy hit from Darcy Tucker along the boards but somehow found a way to get back to the bench, where his teammates assisted him in order to allow Roenick to jump on the ice. Moments later, Roenick collected a pass from Pitkanen and moved in on a 2-on-1 rush. Roenick elected to shoot, snapping the puck past Ed Belfour high to the glove side to end the game and the series. The series-ending tally was Roenick’s second of the game and his final one in a Flyers uniform.
The series victory over Toronto set the stage for an Eastern Conference Final meeting with Tampa Bay. The top-seeded Lightning, capping a magical season in which the club played virtually injury free the entire year and racked up 106 points in the regular season, cruised through the first two rounds of the playoffs by dispatching the New York Islanders in five games and then sweeping the Montreal Canadiens. As things turned out, the Bolts would win all the odd-numbered games in their series with the Flyers, while Philly would take the even-numbered tilts.
In Game 1, a goaltender interference penalty on Primeau wiped out a would-be Flyers goal in the first period. In the middle stanza, Dave Andreychuk and Handzus traded off goals early in the period before Brad Richards put the Bolts ahead to stay with 6:26 left in the frame. Nikolai Khabibulin (19 saves) turned back 7 Flyers’ shots in the third period and fourth-liner Chris Dingman added an insurance goal to give Tampa the 3-1 win.
Two nights later, the Flyers struck back with a vengeance, blowing Tampa out, 6-2. LeClair (even strength), Recchi (power play) and Kapanen (shorthanded) built a 3-0 lead for the Flyers by the end of the first period. Malakhov and Handzus turned the game into a rout with second period goals, and defenseman Mattias Timander rounded out the scoring early in the final stanza. Ex-Flyer Ruslan Fedotenko and Vincent LeCavalier got Tampa on the board in the latter half of the third period but it was too little and too late.
The scene shifted to Philadelphia for the next two games. In Game 3, Cory Stillman and Fedotenko scored to give the Bolts a 2-0 lead they took into the third period. In the opening minute of the third period, Primeau brought the crowd to life, slicing the deficit to a single goal. However, less than a minute later, LeCavalier restored the two-goal cushion and Richards sealed the game with an additional insurance goal midway through the final period.
Facing the prospect of going down 3 games to 1 in the series, the Flyers did not get off to the start they’d hoped for in Game 4. Fredrik Modin staked Tampa to an early lead with a power play goal. But the veteran Flyers remained resolute.
LeClair and Recchi scored their respective final goals as Flyers, giving the team a 2-1 lead after the first intermission. In the middle stanza, Primeau broke Tampa’s backs with a shorthanded goal. The goal, Primeau’s seventh of the playoffs, matched his regular season goal output. LeCavalier scored a meaningless goal for Tampa with 33 seconds remaining in regulation. Philly hung on to win the game, 3-2.
Back in Tampa for Game 5, the Flyers found themselves with a mountain to climb. A first period power play goal by Fedotenko and a pair of second period power play goals by Richards staked Tampa to a 3-0 lead. Before the end of the middle period, however, Handzus collected a goal and Primeau set up rookie Patrick Sharp (a fill-in player with the lineup so banged up) to slice the deficit to a single goal. Philly was unable to find an equalizer in the third period, and Tim Taylor sealed the 4-2 final with an empty net goal in the final 15 seconds.
|The Flyers pushed the Lightning to the brink by forcing a Game 7. |
With the Flyers now facing elimination and skating on tired legs, Primeau and Gagne played the game of their lives in Game 6 on home ice. The emotional rollercoaster of a match saw the lead change hands three times. LeCavalier got Tampa off to a fast start, scoring at the 1:23 mark of the opening period. Gagne and Primeau answered back to give the Flyers a 2-1 lead heading to the locker room for the first intermission.
The lead was short-lived. LeCavalier knotted the score, 2-2, at the 45-second mark of the second period. Kapanen restored the lead midway through the period before Fedotenko put his former team in dire straits with a pair of closely spaced goals late in the stanza.
The Flyers had trouble generating pressure early in the third period. But Primeau and the other team leaders would not let the club give in. With just 1:49 left in regulation, the captain’s hard work finally paid off. When Primeau jammed a puck home past Khabibulin to force overtime, bedlam ensued throughout the arena. The Flyers dominated the OT, and Gagne touched off an even more raucous celebration when he scored at the 18:18 mark to force a seventh game in Tampa.
In the deciding game, Philadelphia battled valiantly but simply didn’t have the energy left to skate with the Lightning. Late in the first period with Tampa on the power play, Fedotenko scored his sixth goal of the series. For the sixth time in seven games, Philly was forced to play comeback hockey. This time, it wasn’t to be.
Modin extended the lead to 2-0 at 4:57 of the second period. Midway through regulation, Johnsson scored to cut the deficit to one goal. That was as close as the Flyers got. Tampa suffocated the Flyers the rest of the game, and Philly was unable to force the issue. Tampa held to win the game, 2-1, and prevail four games to three in the extremely hard-fought series. They went on to down Calgary in the Stanley Cup Final to win their first championship.
Despite the fact that the Flyers lost the Tampa Bay series, Primeau cemented his permanent fan favorite status in Philadelphia with his heroic performance in the postseason. Gagne, meanwhile, showed that he had arrived as a legitimate NHL star. But the 2004 playoff run was the last hurrah for most of the notable remaining Flyers veterans of the 1990s and early 2000s.
The entire 2004-05 NHL season was wiped out by a lockout. When hockey resumed in the fall of 2005, LeClair, Roenick, Recchi, Amonte and Ragnarsson were no longer members of the team. Likewise, short-tenured players such as Zhamov, Malakhov and fellow starting defensemen Danny Markov and Timander resumed their careers elsewhere. Primeau, meanwhile, sustained what proved to be a career-ending concussion early in the 2005-06 season. Eric Desjardins also retired as an active player after one final season in orange and black.
“It was kind of the end of an era for our team, and it would have been great to win a Cup with that group of guys. But I can look back now and appreciate what we accomplished,” Gagne said last fall. “Back then, all I could feel was the disappointment. [Tampa] played a great series, but we battled them as hard as we could. Right until the end, we thought we’d find a way to win.”