You can count an array of positive offseason acquisitions and their remarkable play in the first month of the season among the many reasons the Stanley Cup Playoffs have returned to Philadelphia this spring.
To the Flyers, though, if it wasn’t for the resiliency they showed one cold February night in Western New York, they already would be on summer vacation.
“I think about that game in Buffalo,” center Danny Briere, a former Sabre, said.
It was Feb. 25, and the Flyers arrived at HSBC Arena lugging a 10-game losing streak (0-8-2). Two nights earlier they dropped out of the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference after an overtime loss to Florida. That same nigh,t the Flyers learned All-Star center Mike Richards would miss at least three weeks with a torn hamstring.
Adding to their misery was a 3-0 deficit by the 14:16 mark of the first period.
“It was pretty much the lowest point of our season,” Briere added.
Miraculously, the Flyers pulled themselves off the mat, wiped the snow off their sweaters and turned their season around. They answered with two goals before the first period was through, tied the game 12:45 into the third, and were lifted to victory in the shootout by Briere.
With that one victory, the Flyers moved back into eighth place in the Eastern Conference, snapped their 10-game losing streak, and finally figured out how to win a shootout in the 2007-08 season after losing their first four.
That win also started stretches of three wins in a row and five in seven, which allowed the Flyers to control their own playoff fate during the last month of the season. For a team that totaled a franchise-low 56 points last season, that’s a big step, even though it took a roller-coaster ride of highs and lows to get there.
“We broke a lot of cycles in that game,” Briere said of that night in Buffalo. “That game was huge for us to get us going again.”
Philadelphia actually got it going again once last season mercifully ended. General Manager Paul Holmgren re-tooled the roster by acquiring Kimmo Timonen, Scott Hartnell, Jason Smith and Joffrey Lupul via trades, and he signed Briere on the first day of free agency.
The additions paid immediate dividends as the Flyers, backed by the impressive play of goalie Martin Biron, jumped to the lead in the Atlantic Division with a 7-3 record in October, which included a five-game win streak.
“The way we started showed us that we have a good team,” Biron said. “It showed us that we can beat teams, that we can play well.”
The Flyers stayed stagnant through much of November and December, when they went a combined 12-11-4. By Jan. 4 they had fallen to fourth in the Atlantic Division, but an 8-1-1 stretch before the All-Star break brought them back into first.
Philadelphia, though, plummeted once the break was over. The Flyers went 3-1 in their first four games following the break, but a 4-3 loss to Washington on Feb. 6 started their 10-game losing streak.
While the Flyers were mounting their comeback in Buffalo, Holmgren was orchestrating a trade that would fill a gaping hole on the team’s front line.
With Simon Gagne declared out for the rest of the season only four days earlier due to recurring concussion problems, Holmgren pried forward Vaclav Prospal from Tampa Bay for minor-league defenseman Alexandre Picard and a conditional draft pick.
Prospal, a 30-goal scorer, was a welcome addition.
“They’re different players, and you don’t replace a guy like Simon Gagne, but he brought us another punch up front,” Briere said. “He’s another player you have to watch out for, and even more than that finding that chemistry right off the bat with my line and getting my line going has been a huge boost.”
Briere needed it. His inconsistency had mirrored the Flyers’ this season.
Briere twice went through eight-game stretches without a goal, and another time went six straight games without putting the puck in the net. During the 10-game winless streak, he had a stretch of five straight games without a point.
His plus-minus rating – plus-17 last season – bottomed out at minus-25 in mid-March.
“In the past few seasons my play has been a lot more consistent than it has been this season, but I can’t change anything about that anymore,” Briere said. “It’s in the past. It’s behind me now. I have to move forward and try to find a way to finish strong.”
Prospal helped as Briere and the Flyers held on to their playoff berth over the season’s final few weeks. Now they can put their hot-and-cold 2007-08 regular season behind them, because the marathon is over.
It’s time to start sprinting, and the Flyers believe they can race to the front again.
“You look at the teams that are successful, for not too many of them does it happen over night, that it starts clicking for them,” Briere said. “It’s a work in progress. It takes time, but we’re that team now that is playing better and better as a group.”