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Core players, rookies spur Flyers' return to playoffs

by Adam Kimelman
The Philadelphia Flyers were one of the biggest question marks in the League entering the season after a massive roster overhaul that saw them lose three top-six forwards while adding an expensive goalie and a 39-year-old KHL expatriate. No one was sure just where they would finish in the standings.
But following a 4-1 win against the Canadiens on Saturday, the Flyers earned a playoff spot, and they still remain in the hunt for the top spot in the conference.
Here are six reasons they got to this point:
1. A late burst by Bryz: When Ilya Bryzgalov met with the media following a 6-4 loss to the Penguins that saw him get pulled in the second period after allowing three goals on 13 shots -- including a pair of shorthanded goals less than two minutes apart -- Bryzgalov said, "I know I've got to be better. I will continue to work on this but … I'll try to find peace in my soul to play in this city." Whatever he's found has worked perfectly; since that game, Bryzgalov is 12-3-1 with a 1.63 goals-against average, a .940 save percentage and four shutouts.
2. Hartnell's resurgence: Scott Hartnell had been floundering when coach Peter Laviolette tossed him a lifeline for a game Oct. 22 against the St. Louis Blues, putting him at right wing on a line with center Claude Giroux and left wing Jaromir Jagr. In the ensuing five months, Hartnell has gone from the fourth line to the All-Star Game and his best NHL season, with a career-best 35 goals. He's been a physical force and excelled both at 5-on-5 and on the power play, where he's tied for the League lead with 15 extra-man goals.
3. Rookies fitting right in: Generally, Stanley Cup contenders don't have much time to work rookies into the starting lineup. However, the Flyers have played 12 rookie skaters -- tied for most in the League -- including six who made their NHL debuts this season. And they've gotten huge contributions from their first-year players. Matt Read has 21 goals, and Read and Sean Couturier have anchored the penalty kill all season. In all, they've gotten 53 goals from their first-year players, by far the most in the League.
4. Giroux taking a lead role:
When Flyers GM Paul Holmgren traded Jeff Carter and Mike Richards in June, one of the reasons he cited was the development of Claude Giroux. Giroux was an All-Star last season, but has raised his game even higher in 2011-12. He's second in the League with 59 assists and third with 86 points, plays on the first power-play and penalty-kill units, and has emerged as a Hart Trophy candidate.
5. Jaromir Jagr's influence: No one was sure what the Flyers were getting when they signed Jagr after a three-year stint in the KHL, but the future Hall of Famer has been a revelation on and off the ice. He has 18 goals and 49 points in 65 games, and has emerged as arguably the most respected figure in the locker room for his on- and off-ice work ethic.
6. Paul Holmgren's decision-making: The Flyers' GM has shown a willingness to be creative and take calculated risks, and this season almost all of them have worked out. He traded franchise stalwarts Carter and Richards in June with no offensive drop-off thanks to outstanding front-line depth -- 10 forwards have at least 10 goals, and four have scored at least 20. He spent big on Bryzgalov, and after a slow start, that move is paying major dividends. He didn't make any panic moves when top defenseman and team captain Chris Pronger was lost for the season due to a concussion. He resisted the urge to overhaul his roster for Rick Nash at the trade deadline, instead adding a pair of low-risk, high-reward defensemen in Nicklas Grossmann and Pavel Kubina. Holmgren deftly watched as all the question marks became exclamation points and his team stayed in the running for the top spot in the conference all season.
Contact Adam Kimelman at Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK
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