They won five of their first 18 games, were in next-to-last place in the Metropolitan Division on January 2 and six points out of a playoff spot on February 18.
“The way we evolved from the beginning of the year and the resiliency we showed, I’m proud of every single guy in this dressing room,” said Wayne Simmonds. “We gave it our all; I can say there was definitely no lack of effort in this room.”
The team that was a whopping 11 points better than everybody else in the league this year proved just a little bit better in this series. The Flyers made the mighty Caps earn their victory.
“They’re very well coached and, you know, it was a battle,” said Coach Barry Trotz. “Coming into this series I probably looked at it like it was going to be a long series. When we got to 3-0 we were a little surprised ourselves.”
That third period was a lot more about what a deep and mature Caps team was doing right than anything the Flyers were doing wrong. The Flyers never got that one clean look to tie the game, but they were around the net against a club that seals the slot and doesn’t turn over the puck.
Without the use of their Selke Trophy candidate center, Sean Couturier, the Flyers gave up two goals in the final three games to the second-highest scoring team in the league.
They did that with terrific support of defensemen who individually and collectively proved better over the second half of the season and into the playoffs than the third-pair caliber guys they were supposed to be. Andrew MacDonald, Radko Gudas, Nick Schultz and Mark Streit were rocks down the stretch and in the playoffs and Brandon Manning came a long way, too.
This was his first lesson in playoff checking for Shayne Gostisbehere but he had a goal and didn’t come unglued. Even with the loss of Michael Del Zotto, by the end of the season the Flyers were six deep with defensemen they could trust.
Never mind one brain cramp in Game Two, this was the best season of night-in, night-out, goaltending the Flyers have had since Ron Hextall’s rookie year in 1986-87. After years when you held your breath every time the puck came into the zone, Steve Mason and Neuvirth made the opposition earn their goals.
After the third period of Game Three, this had threatened to be as inglorious as several other exits over the years. Remember 8-0 and 7-1 to Buffalo? 5-1 to Ottawa? The Flyers regained their poise and didn’t lose the series as much as the Capitals won it.
Turned out, their record since January didn’t lie. As Trotz pointed out, there were three points difference between the Flyers and the President’s Trophy winner since the start of the year. The Caps went 28-11-6 for 62 points, while the Flyers nearly matched them with a 26-13-7 record down the stretch.
The fans had learned to trust this team’s effort from period to period and game to game. As the season went along the Flyers became not nearly as subject to momentum swings and were much less frustrating to watch. Yeah, there still some careless penalties that have to be cleaned up, but a lot more often than not, the Flyers kept coming.
The nucleus still is in mid-career. A deeper set of prospects are on the way and the salary cap is under better control.
The stakes get raised next season, when eighth place and a good showing against the top seed isn’t going to excite anybody but this didn’t seem like the end, only a beginning.