PHILADELPHIA – The ovation was loud, long and full of love for Peter Laviolette. He coached the Carolina Hurricanes to their only Stanley Cup in 2006 and the fans in Raleigh, N.C., wanted to show their appreciation.
Because it was only the all-star game, the fiery Laviolette broke from his usual stern look on the bench and soaked in the applause.
It’s the kind of lasting bond formed when a team wins a championship. No matter how sour the ending—Laviolette was fired after missing the playoffs the next two seasons—the memories of a Stanley Cup chase never fade on either side.
Just ask the Broad Street Bullies. Even 36 years after the Flyers last won a Stanley Cup, there’s a Bernie Parent and Bobby Clarke replica retired number banner giveaway on the promotions calendar. It’s as popular as $1 hot dog night.
Laviolette—”Lavi” as he’s known around the locker-room—is trying to cement that bond with a new generation of Flyers fans thirsting for another title. He brought them within two wins of the championship last season and has positioned the Flyers, maybe the best all-around team the franchise has produced since the Bullies’ heyday, as legitimate Cup contenders entering the second half.
The Flyers are 33-12-5 with 71 points. They lead the NHL in wins and are tied with Western Conference-leading Vancouver for the most points. They are deep on every line, boast two No. 1 goalies, and are playing with a confidence developed during their stunning run last spring to the finals.
A year ago, the Flyers clinched a playoff spot—the No. 7 seed—in the last game of the season. A year later, they’re shooting for the No. 1 seed. And they’ll get a chance to flex their 17-5-3 road record, tops in the NHL, on Tuesday when they meet Tampa Bay.
“I think there’s been an expectation to win every game we play,” Laviolette said. “I think there’s a belief we can win every game we can play. When you have an expectation and a belief, I think that’s a pretty good combination.”
It has a lot to do with the aforementioned depth. Opponents, in fact, have found no success focusing on shutting down one or two lines, because all four are potent for the Flyers.
Claude Giroux and Danny Briere, both All-Stars, have 40-plus points, as does Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. Briere, who scored twice in Sunday’s mid-season classic, and Carter are in the top 10 among NHL goal scorers. And the Flyers lead the league overall with 174 goals.
“We’re playing well and we’re winning a lot of games right now,” Giroux said. “I think good teams find a way to show up every game.”
The Flyers have proved they’ve been the team to beat since October, not April like last season.
Of course, all the regular-season fun will mean little if the Flyers aren’t playing meaningful games in June. But for now, they need to focus on the regular season, and while doing that, they’ll obviously remain in the hunt for the Presidents’ Trophy, awarded to the team with the most points.
“It’s not the goal, but at the same time, if we’re not in the running, it means there’s a serious collapse there down the stretch,” Briere said. “We expect to be there.”
History shows losing out on the trophy might be one “L” the Flyers would accept. Only three of the last 10 winners have won the Stanley Cup and the last two (Washington, San Jose) both lost in the first round of the playoffs.
For more positive motivation, they could look at their cross-state rival, Pittsburgh. Sidney Crosby and the Penguins lost to Detroit in the Stanley Cup finals in 2008, then won the championship in 2009.
“The goal is the playoffs,” Briere said, “and we want to make our path as easy as possible.”
It’ll help that the Flyers are as comfortable and confident in net as they have been in years.
Sergei Bobrovsky, 22, was the youngest Flyers goaltender to start an opener when he beat the Penguins on Oct. 7. He’s won 21 games and has a strong chance at becoming the first Flyers player to win the Calder Trophy, awarded to the NHL’s rookie of the year.
He won six consecutive starts before the All-Star break, sporting a 1.83goals-against average and a .940 save percentage.
Meanwhile, veteran goalie Brian Boucher, who won a playoff-clinching shootout in last year’s season finale, has 11 wins and would be an able No. 1 if Bobrovsky falters down the stretch.
The Flyers have no glaring weakness and talked before the All-Star break in generalities about areas they’d like to see improvement. Work on the power play. Tighten up the penalty kill.
All small talk, it seems, for a team that went 10-2-0 in January and has had just one three-game losing streak this season. That was in October.
It’s likely that only injuries or complacency can slow them down the rest of the way. And after coming so close to winning it all last season, the latter hardly seems a problem.
“We learned a lot about ourselves the way we played down the stretch last year, the way we showed up for everybody, for each other in the playoffs,” Briere said. “We can trust everybody sitting around in this dressing room.”