After a surprising run to the Eastern Conference finals last season, high expectations have returned for the Philadelphia Flyers.
And they're quite OK with it.
One of the last teams to play their season opener, the Flyers begin their quest to end a 33-year Stanley Cup drought Saturday when they host their Atlantic Division rivals, the New York Rangers.
The Flyers were the worst team in the NHL in 2006-07 with league lows of 22 victories and 56 points. But the signing of free agent Daniel Briere, acquisition of Joffrey Lupul via trade and the emergence of youngsters Mike Richards and Jeff Carter vaulted Philadelphia back into the postseason, where it ousted Washington and Montreal before eventually losing to Pittsburgh.
"Last year was about re-energizing the franchise," said forward Mike Knuble, also a key contributor with 29 goals. "This year is about improving on that and taking the next step."
The next step is bringing the Stanley Cup back to Philadelphia for the first time since 1975, when the "Broad Street Bullies" won the second of back-to-back titles. The Flyers have reached the finals four times in those ensuing 33 years, but not since being swept by Detroit in 1997.
"We want to carry some momentum from last year, but on the same hand, you look at teams that have gone deep in the playoffs in recent years and they haven't been able to bounce back," said Lupul. "That's something that should be in the backs of our minds. Last year is over. It's a new start for everyone."
While the Flyers showed balance with six 20-goal scorers, the key may be Simon Gagne being fully healthy. The left wing - a two-time 40-goal scorer - was limited to 25 games last season due to the effects of a concussion, and will start the season on the top line with Briere and Richards, the 23-year-old center who was named captain in the offseason.
Martin Biron will again backstop the Flyers after posting 30 wins last season. There is one new face defensively, 18-year-old Luca Sbisa, the team's first-round pick in June. Sbisa had a strong training camp, and coach John Stevens opted to keep the youngster instead of sending him to the minors.
The Rangers are 3-0 for the first time since the 1989-90 season after defeating the Chicago 4-2 on Friday. Brandon Dubinsky had a goal and two assists, while linemates Nikolai Zherdev and Aaron Voros each added a goal and an assist for New York, which opened the season with a pair of victories over Tampa Bay in the Czech Republic.
"Those two wins in Europe were nice, but if we don't come back here and take care of business in our home opener, it kind of makes it a moot point," Voros said. "I don't think we necessarily had the best game in the world ... but all in all I think we played pretty well."
New York has yet to allow a power-play goal, killing 11 penalties through its first three games.
Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who enters this game 5-0-0 with a 2.89 goals-against average lifetime at Philadelphia, has turned aside 70 of 74 shots the first three games. He is 8-3-2 with two shutouts and a 3.03 GAA overall versus the Flyers.
New York has not started 4-0-0 since winning its first five games in 1983-84.
In a city known for being the birthplace of American democracy, the Flyers will also open their home schedule with Republican vice presidential candidate and Alaska governor Sarah Palin dropping the puck for the ceremonial opening face-off. Flyers chairman Ed Snider - a GOP contributor - invited Palin, the self-described "hockey mom," to drop the puck along with the winner of the team's "Ultimate Hockey Mom" contest.