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Fleischman: A Look Ahead

by Bill Fleischman / Philadelphia Flyers
So close.

Bill Fleischman

Normally, when a team reaches the Stanley Cup finals and loses, there is lingering heart-wrenching disappointment. That’s not the case though with last season’s Flyers.

The Flyers waited until the last possible moment to qualify for the playoffs, advancing on Claude Giroux’s shootout goal in the regular-season finale. Considered by many observers a long shot to advance far in the playoffs, the Flyers beat New Jersey in five games. They fell behind 0-3 against Boston before staging a memorable rally to win the series. Then the Flyers eliminated Montreal in five games to set up an appealing finals matchup with Chicago.

Losing to the Blackhawks in six games wasn’t easy to accept -- has anyone other than Patrick Kane, Michael Leighton, the referee and goal judge seen the puck in the net? – but when the series was over, the region still embraced the Flyers.

The Flyers playoff run was so compelling, my sense is many fans have positive feelings about the team and can’t wait to see how these Flyers navigate this season. Once again the Eastern Conference is a forest of oaks on skates, with Washington, Pittsburgh, New Jersey, Boston, Montreal and Buffalo as stubborn opponents. The Flyers should be in the mix with all these teams.

The Eastern Conference champions feature deep forward lines, plus a strengthened, experienced defense corps as skilled as any in the NHL. Peter Laviolette has his first full season to wrap his arms around the team and mold it into the force he wants.

GET TO KNOW THE FLYERS: Goaltenders // Forwards // Defense

The major question is goaltending. With Michael Leighton sidelined by a bulging disk in his back, can rookie Sergei Bobrovsky and veteran Brian Boucher carry the Flyers until Leighton returns?

How ‘bout that Bobrovsky! When the Flyers opened the season in Pittsburgh, I think nearly everyone expected Boucher to be in the nets. But nooooooo…Laviolette surprised the hockey world by choosing Bobrovsky, and all he did was win, 3-2, in his NHL debut. “Bob”, as he is known in the Flyers lockerroom, stopped 29 shots by the explosive Pittsburgh attack.

Sergei Bobrovsky has turned the heads of the Flyers coaching staff and has earned a spot on the roster.
Bobrovsky is the first Flyers rookie to win in his debut since Antero Niittymaki during the 2003-04 season. The 22-year-old Russian also is the youngest Flyers goaltender to start a season opener. He is 22 years, 17 days old. Ron Hextall, in 1986, was 22 years, 159 days old.

If “Bob” continues playing as he did in the opener, he’ll put his hometown of Novokuznetsk on the map…if anyone can find it on a map.

Jeff Reese, the Flyers second-year goaltending coach, is enjoying working with Bobrovsky.

“He’s an impressive young man,” Reese said before the Flyers left for Pittsburgh. “He’s very athletic and intelligent. He’s a very hard worker: he wants to get better. He’d stay on the ice six hours a day if we let him.

“He’s very polished. He played two years in the KHL (Kontinental Hockey League). Arguably, that’s the second best league in the world. It’s like playing two years in the minors. He’s adjusting quickly.”

 Since Bobrovsky speaks very little English, I asked Reese how they communicate. Reese said a translator is available and Bobrovsky is taking English lessons. (Earlier, when I asked Scott Hartnell if he is helping “Bob” with his English, Hartnell smiled and replied, “I’m trying. Bad words first.”)

“Once (Bobrovsky) figured out what I want, and I learned what he likes, it got a lot easier,” Reese said. “Now, we have a better understanding of what each of us wants.”

While Bobrovsky’s start has sneaked up on some observers, Reese sensed that the young goaltender arrived in camp with an ambitious plan.
“When he came to rookie camp in July, and then he came back early (for preseason camp), his intention was to make the team,” Reese said. “The fact that we’ve had an injury (Leighton) and a door opened up for him (created an opportunity).”

While Bobrovsky’s performances have created unexpected excitement around the Flyers, let’s not forget about Boucher. He has played well in stretches, particularly in last season’s playoffs, and surely will receive some shot-stopping duty soon.

“He’s an experienced guy that the team has confidence in,” Reese said. “He’s had a terrific camp and he’s enjoying himself.”

Whoever is in the nets, they’ll have a formidable team in front of them.

“This is the deepest all-around team since I’ve been here,” said Danny Briere, the Flyers leading scorer in the playoffs (12 goals, 18 assists in 23 games). “When you look at the defense, the addition of (Matt) Walker, (Sean) O’Donnell and (Andrej) Meszaros makes us very deep. Up front, the lines are set up for a lot of fun.”

Briere believes that the Flyers playoff experience, from almost not extending their season to playing in the finals, will benefit them this season.

“We’re a much better team than we were at the beginning of last season,” Briere said. “There’s no better team-building than winning together. We did that in the playoffs. We created a lot of bonds. Knowing that you can rely on the guy sitting next to you is a huge advantage. We proved that we can trust each other. It’s made us even hungry after getting so close (to winning the Cup).”

Hartnell is as enthusiastic as Briere about the season. After a sub-par regular season, Hartnell was a strong contributor in the playoffs with eight goals and nine assists.

“I think we’ll carry on where we left off last year,” Hartnell. “We have a lot of the core guys returning. We’ve worked hard (in preseason). Hopefully, that correlates to a good start.”

The roller-coaster experiences from last year’s playoffs should help the Flyers this season.

“That was my first time in the Final,” Hartnell said. “If we get there again, all the off-ice distractions will be easier to handle.”

The 2011 playoffs are a long way off. For now, the Flyers faithful will settle for a strong start and many more memorable efforts from “Bob the goalie.”


Please note that the views expressed in this column are not necessarily the views expressed by the Philadelphia Flyers Hockey Club.

Bill Fleischman is a veteran Philadelphia Daily News sportswriter. He was the Flyers' beat reporter for the Daily News in the 1970s, and continued to cover games in later years. A former president of the Professional Hockey Writers and the Philadelphia Sports Writers Associations, Fleischman is co-author of "Bernie, Bernie," the autobiography of Bernie Parent. Fleischman also is co-author of "The Unauthorized NASCAR Fan Guide." Since 1982, he was an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware journalism program.

He is a graduate of Germantown High School and Gettysburg College.
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