PHILADELPHIA – The orange-clad Philly diehards banged their inflatable sticks and chanted “Let’s Go Flyers!” all game, filling the Wachovia Center with the kind of jubilation usually reserved for the playoffs.
The celebration can go on for at least two more weeks. Martin Biron and the rest of the Flyers took care of that with perhaps their best all-around game of the season and clinched their first playoff spot since 2006.
Biron stopped all 22 shots for his fourth shutout and the Flyers returned to the post-season with a 3-0 win over the New Jersey Devils on Friday night.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a team play a better game that was so crucial,” said chairman Ed Snider, who founded the Flyers. “They weren’t afraid, they weren’t nervous. They just took it to New Jersey.”
The Flyers’ remarkable turnaround from the worst team in the NHL last season to the Eastern Conference playoffs was completed when Florida beat Carolina 4-3 shortly after Philadelphia’s win.
R.J. Umberger scored his 13th goal of the season only 5:44 into the game, and Scottie Upshall and Joffrey Lupul scored 37 seconds apart in the third. The Flyers finish the season Sunday against Pittsburgh and could finish as high as the No. 6 seed.
“If we play like this, we’re going to be very, very dangerous,” Umberger said.
Biron, who has never played a post-season game, recorded his 22nd career shutout.
There was a Philly playoff double on Friday night. The 76ers beat Atlanta 109-104 to reach the post-season for the first time since 2005.
Snider, the chairman of Comcast-Spectacor which owns both teams, had his Blackberry in hand and checked score updates from Atlanta.
Martin Brodeur made 33 saves and was having one of the more dazzling performances against the Flyers by a visiting goalie this season until the third. The Flyers attacked Brodeur all three periods, putting him on his back, on his knees or sprawled along the crease on almost every shot. He stopped just about everything until he allowed two straight goals and was pulled for Kevin Weekes.
“They just outplayed us,” Brodeur said. “There was a lot of incentive for them. The atmosphere was unbelievable and we had a hard time matching it.”
The Devils blew an opportunity to secure the No. 4 seed in the East.
“Outside of our goaltender, we had a lot of bad players tonight,” said coach Brent Sutter. “No sense of passion at all.”
The Flyers played without Danny Briere, who was scratched because in injured left knee. Briere, who has 31 goals and 72 points, injured his knee in a collision during Wednesday’s 4-2 loss in Pittsburgh.
“I want to help out the team,” Briere said. “We all are aware of the situation. But sometimes there is just nothing you can do.”
Briere and injured forward Simon Gagne watched the locker room celebration in street clothes.
Trying to win their first Stanley Cup since 1975, the Flyers rebounded from the most disastrous season in franchise history. They won only 22 games and missed the playoffs for the first time since 1994, forcing general manager to overhaul the roster and add key players like Briere, Lupul and defencemen Jason Smith and Kimmo Timonen.
General manager Paul Holmgren set the pre-season goal of playing meaningful games in March. Now, the Flyers will play big ones in April and possibly beyond.
“This was as good as we played all year,” second-year coach John Stevens said.
This game had a playoff feel from the before the first faceoff. The fans roared when Lauren Hart, the daughter of longtime former Flyers broadcaster Gene Hart, sang “God Bless America,” alternating lyrics with Kate Smith, who was on a video image. Smith’s rendition of the song has been a rallying anthem for the Flyers since the mid-1970s.
Not a boo could be heard in this one, a rarity for a team that heard plenty of them during a 10-game losing streak that plummeted them from second to eighth in the East standings over a nine-week period.
“They were there early, they were loud, from start to finish, it was great. A lot of fun,” Umberger said.
The Flyers pummelled Brodeur and were outshooting the Devils 30-9 late in the second period. Biron stood alone for long stretches, doing nothing but banging his stick on the ice in encouragement.
Still, the crowd chanted “Marty! Marty! Marty!” late in the game and the shutout within reach.
“We’ve got something left to do,” Biron said. “But to get it done a couple of days earlier than we could have gone is a great feeling.”
Notes: Brodeur started his 40th consecutive game. … The Flyers snapped a six-game winless streak (0-5-1) against the Devils.