When the sun rose on the morning of March 15, the Philadelphia Flyers found themselves on the fringe of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They were in the second Eastern Conference wild-card spot based on a tiebreaker. They were coming off back-to-back one-goal losses and had in front of them a weekend home-and-home set with their bitter rivals, the Pittsburgh Penguins.
It was a turning point of the season for the Flyers, as that weekend opened a stretch of 10 consecutive games against teams that, on March 15, all were in a playoff spot.
"We definitely, starting this weekend, have to play real good hockey and win hockey games," coach Craig Berube said heading into that March 15 game. "It's crunch time against real good teams. … Playing these games against good teams, with everything on the line, will prepare us for the playoffs."
Prepare them well it did. The Flyers swept the Penguins, starting a 6-2-2 run that solidified their hold on a playoff spot and allowed them to return to the postseason after a one-year absence.
Here are five more reasons the Flyers will have a chance to win the franchise's third Stanley Cup:
Claude Giroux's improved play has helped move the Flyers back into the playoffs. (Photo: Getty Images)
1. Carried by the captain
Claude Giroux's play has been a barometer for the Flyers this season. When they were bad early, he was struggling. But after scoring his first goal Nov. 9 against the Edmonton Oilers, Giroux has been one of the better players in the League and the Flyers started putting some wins together.
Since Nov. 9, the Flyers are 37-19-8. And Giroux, who had seven assists and a minus-11 rating prior to Nov. 9, has 27 goals, 74 points and a plus-17 rating in 67 games since then. He's among the League's scoring leaders and likely will receive Hart Trophy consideration.
"He's one of the best players in this League and I think he's shown that time after time," teammate Wayne Simmonds said. "… I think people were doubting him earlier this year and I think he has definitely proved himself. He's been awesome. He's a great leader and he works really, really hard. He's a great example for all of us to follow."
2. New coach, new style
When Craig Berube replaced Peter Laviolette three games into the season, no one was sure if Berube could pull the team out of its tailspin. But with honesty and a no-nonsense approach, he pulled the Flyers out of a nosedive that gave them the look of a team headed to a second straight long summer.
"He's very honest and that helps a lot," forward Jakub Voracek said. "Every time I have a conversation with him he's honest with me. He'll say, 'You played like crap,' or 'You played good.' There's no in between. That's how he gained respect; he's honest with everyone and he doesn't change with different players."
Berube demanded the players get into better shape and skate harder. He tightened their play in the defensive zone and then ramped up their aggression on the forecheck. Once the players bought in, their fortunes changed for the better.
"He changed a lot of stuff," defenseman Kimmo Timonen said. "He's got his own way to lead the team and I like the way he leads the team."
3. Solid goaltending
The common theme around the Flyers for almost 30 years -- since Ron Hextall backstopped Philadelphia to the 1987 Stanley Cup Final as a rookie -- is that Philadelphia has been a goaltending graveyard.
Steve Mason likely won't win the Vezina Trophy this season, but his consistent play has been a major reason Philadelphia is back in the playoffs. He's won 30 games for the first time since his remarkable rookie season with the Columbus Blue Jackets, but regardless of the numbers he's given the organization a level of confidence when he's in net that had been lacking the previous few seasons.
Backup Ray Emery also has been solid when called upon.
"Those two guys have been great teammates," Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren said. "They've each taken turns giving us chances to win. You can count on maybe one hand the games where our goaltending maybe wasn't good enough."
4. Strong penalty killing
Though the Flyers' power play has been inconsistent, their penalty killing has improved throughout the season. And it's been at its best since the Olympic break; in 20 games Philadelphia has nullified 87.4 percent of opposition power plays, as opposed to 84.1 percent before the break.
And it's had to be good, as the Flyers are whistled for an average of 14.5 penalty minutes per game, the most in the League, and they've been shorthanded 305 times this season, second-most in the League.
Though Berube has stressed the need for his team to play smarter and take fewer penalties, he at least knows that his team can get the job done when a man down.
5. The comeback kids
For almost every mistake the Flyers made, they seemingly were one shift away from making up for it. On 11 occasions they trailed at some point in the third period of a game only to come out with a win. And their seven wins when trailing after two periods are tied for the third-most in the League.
"It's confidence," Berube said. "They know they can win games. Whether down or tied or leading, they've done a good job either way. We're down a goal or two, they come out and know they got to give a little extra, try a little more to get back in the game."