|Martin Biron, impressive in his first playoff run as a starting goaltender, shakes hands with Pittsburgh's Marc-Andre Fleury after Sunday's season finale. (Getty Images) |
The Philadelphia Flyers went from the lowest of lows a season ago to nearly the highest of highs, but their roller-coaster season ended on Sunday with a 6-0 defeat at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
That their season concluded with a five-game loss in the Eastern Conference Finals one season after finishing with the League's worst record is a short-term disappointment, but has the makings of long-term gain.
"For us to come out of last year where we were getting killed every game, this has been a tremendous response as a group," Mike Knuble said. "We knew we could rebound, but to find ourselves in the conference final, I think that caught a few people off-guard."
Through strong recent drafting and shrewd personnel moves, Flyers General Manager Paul Holmgren has positioned the team for future success.
They're set in goal with Martin Biron, and a young core of forwards -- Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, R.J. Umberger, Joffrey Lupul and Scott Hartnell
-- and defensemen -- Braydon Coburn
and Randy Jones -- all acquitted themselves well in the postseason.
"We have a lot of guys on the verge of getting older in experience," said Umberger. "Our nucleus is still building. I think we've gotten this organization back to where it should be."
And their pipeline of young prospects also is producing, with Steve Downie and Claude Giroux
– who had 51 points in 19 QMJHL playoff games – at the head of that class.
"To go from last place to the conference final is fantastic," said Flyers President Peter Luukko said. "As much as it hurts today, these guys did a fantastic job. And it's going to be even better in the future with all the players we have. The future is very bright."
There were times during the season that future looked very bright, while other times it looked like a blackout hit the Wachovia Center.
The season started with wins in six of their first seven games, and they cruised into the All-Star break with eight wins in their last 10 games to sit second in the Eastern Conference.
A 10-game losing streak through February plus the continued absence of top forward Simon Gagne dropped the Flyers all the way out of the playoff race.
After a 7-1 loss in Pittsburgh on March 16, Stevens rearranged the dressing room, which seemed to reinvigorate the team. With veteran forward Vaclav Prospal – acquired from Tampa Bay the day before the trade deadline – excelling on a line with Danny Briere
, the Flyers finished with a 7-1-1 record. They clinched a playoff spot in Game No. 81, and earned the sixth seed with a season-ending 2-0 win over the Penguins.
They knocked out the Washington Capitals in seven games in the first round, and then upset the top-seeded Montreal Canadiens in five games to reach their first conference final since 2004.
That their journey didn't have the happy ending they wanted, the Flyers were happy just to have made the trip.
"Working with this group has been one of the more enjoyable experiences I've had in pro hockey," Stevens said. "We've made tremendous strides this year. We've come a long way. We played the No. 1-2-3 seeds in the playoffs, and I thought we did a remarkable job."
"Through all the adversity and the highs and lows, it's great to see that we can get through some of the adversity we had thrown our way," Richards said. "I had one of the funnest years I had, just being around the guys. I wouldn't trade it. I'm extremely happy with the team."