Brian Smith | PhiladelphiaFlyers.com
/ Philadelphia Flyers
The Philadelphia Flyers took a deep breath Tuesday and stepped on the ice for the first time in their history without Ed Snider at the helm of the organization, returning to begin preparations for their first-round series against the Washington Capitals.
Monday was always a planned day of rest, but it became an emotional one when the word of Snider’s passing came out shortly after 8 AM. The Flyers had kept in touch with Snider even over this past season that was mostly spent in California – the team visited him at his home in December and recorded a video for him following Saturday’s playoff-clinching win over the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“The guys have been talking about it a lot,” said Flyers captain Claude Giroux, who orchestrated Saturday’s postgame message. “It’s really sad and I know it’s something we’re dealing with as a team. I think he would have loved to see the playoffs this year. I know he really likes the playoffs. It’s pretty intense and the fans are pretty intense too.”
AN EXCITING TIME
Although the Flyers weren’t in the playoffs last year, they come into the series with a good bit of playoff experience. There are 11 players on the roster who were part of the team’s seven-game series against the New York Rangers two years ago.
“A good portion of the team that went to that Game 7 there is back,” said Flyers goaltender Steve Mason, who was part of that group. “We’ve grown and we can gain from experience this season. We’ve shown growth, which is extremely important. We just have to put it to good use now.”
On the flip side, several younger players will be getting their first taste of postseason play at the NHL level, including Shayne Gostisbehere, Nick Cousins and Scott Laughton. A somewhat surprising person in that mix though is Sam Gagner, who’s in his ninth NHL season yet will see postseason action for the first time this week.
“It’s exciting,” Gagner said. “I’m used to today packing up my stuff. You play to play in the playoffs. It’s an exciting challenge for us. It’s been a long time coming for myself, but for this team in general, we’ve battled hard for the last couple months. It took the entire year to find our identity and keep pushing forward. It’s a special feeling to get in.”
egardless though – young or veteran, experienced or not – the playoffs are a special time. The Flyers have made it in, and now they’re set to try to do some damage.
“I think that initial excitement for all of us on Saturday, rightly so was pretty significant,” Hakstol said. “I think that pretty quickly turns to the next stage where we had one goal in the regular season and that’s to be a playoff team. Now, our focus is to the next opportunity which is the first round of the playoffs and as soon as you get your focus squarely on that next opportunity, I think everything else around you goes quiet and you just get your focus on that one thing.”
Around the room, there was a belief that Snider fought to make it long enough to see the Flyers finally clinch a postseason berth. His passing came less than 48 hours after the team clinched, and the players don’t think it was a coincidence.
“It was definitely special,” Mason said. “It looks like he stuck around to see us make it, which is awesome to see. We know what he’s been battling for a long time. It’s an extremely sad time for the organization and his family and just the city of Philadelphia in general. We’re going to try to make him proud here.”
So rather than just a traditional first day back to practice, Tuesday’s skate took on a bit of a transitional significance. While Snider will be on the minds of the team throughout this playoff run, the time has come to focus on a Washington Capitals squad that poses a formidable obstacle to the Flyers’ desire to make a deep run. The Capitals set a franchise record with 56 wins this year, going 56-18-8, and finished 11 points ahead of the rest of the NHL to earn their second Presidents’ Trophy. But the Flyers went 2-2 against Washington this year and have an idea of how to be effective against the Caps.
“They’re the best team in the league this year by far, so it’s going to be a tough matchup,” Couturier said. “Playoffs is a new season. Everyone starts even. For us we’ve got to take it one game at a time. We know it’s going to be tough and we expect kind of a long series. Anything can happen and we like our chances.”
Both of the Flyers’ wins over Washington this year came in extra time, one in OT and one in a shootout. The only game decided by more than one goal was a 5-2 loss on November 12, but that was a game the Flyers actually led twice – 1-0 and 2-1– before the Caps broke the game open with three second-period goals.
“You definitely have to take something out of that,” said winger Wayne Simmonds. “When you play the best team in the league as tough as we did this year, that’s saying something about our team. We didn’t get off to the greatest start in the season, but we fought our way back and we battled. We’re confident in one another. I know I look beside me and [everybody] is going out there to work their butts off, so I’ve got to do the same thing.”
The Flyers are hoping that long fight back into the playoffs puts some momentum on their side. They have been playing high-stakes hockey for more than two months, and needed to get to the final weekend of the season to get in. Washington, meanwhile, wrapped up the Presidents’ Trophy on March 28, which is the earliest a team has clinched the regular season championship in 14 years. The last time the Capitals won that title, in 2010, they lost in the first round to Montreal. But the last team to wrap it up that early, Detroit in 2002, did win the Cup that year. So that’s one historical note going each way.
“We’ve been in a push in the regular season and it took us until game 81 to earn our spot in the playoffs,” said Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol. “Now, we’re going to take some of the things we’ve built, things that we’ve learned through that stretch, and now we need to elevate to another level to playoff level.”
There will also be a lot of focus on special teams play in this series. Washington had both the fourth-best power play and penalty kill in the league, and it’s no secret that Alexander Ovechkin does most of his damage on the power play. However, the Flyers were able to significantly cut down their shorthanded situations over their final push to the playoffs – over their final 20 games, the Flyers didn’t allow their opponent more than four power plays and only hit that number three times. They allowed two or fewer in 11 of those games. Keeping that style of play going will be a key for success, although Hakstol said he doesn’t anticipate it being a specific focus.
“We’ve got to go and play the game,” Hakstol said. “Discipline is a big part of the game and I think as a team, our discipline has been outstanding over the last three months in particular and it’s not something that we need to talk about anymore.”
But underneath it all, there will be that on intangible of the Flyers trying to go as far as they can as a tribute to the man who made it all possible.
“I think what Mr. Snider would have wanted was for us to go out there and win,” Couturier said. “That’s all he wanted. We should give it all in his honor.”