While the Colorado Avalanche are using “Why not us?” as their motto, the Philadelphia Flyers might want to adopt “Why wouldn’t we?” going into the playoffs.
That was winger Jakub Voracek’s response to a question last week in Pittsburgh about whether the Flyers could still win if starting goaltender Steve Mason can’t play. Voracek didn’t take too kindly to that, propping up backup Ray Emery in the process.
It will be Emery starting Game 1 of the Metropolitan Division semifinal series against the New York Rangers, and Mason’s status is uncertain. In spite of Mason’s injury and a losing streak at Madison Square Garden that dates back three years, the Flyers are a confident group.
And why wouldn’t they be? Philadelphia was left for dead after a 4-10-1 start but managed to make it here thanks to a coaching change, an MVP-calibre turnaround by captain Claude Giroux and a total transformation from doormat to playoff participant.
“It’s like a different team,” defenceman Mark Streit said. “Obviously at the beginning of the season the expectations were really high and then we had a really rough start. … Step-by-step we went in the right direction.”
Nothing happened overnight. Coach Peter Laviolette was fired after three straight losses to open the season, and it looked like replacement Craig Berube wouldn’t have much luck, either.
Still, it seemed like a move that had to be made.
“I was at training camp, kind of watched the blase camp that they had,” said former defenceman Chris Pronger, who’s now working for the team as a scout. “I think once they made the change, it wasn’t just going to switch.”
It was a gradual process, as the Flyers relied heavily on Mason and couldn’t get much of anything going.
“Early on, we weren’t scoring goals because we weren’t playing defence because we didn’t have the friggin’ puck,” Pronger said at the Gatorade High Performance Hockey Summit last month. “I think once Chief instilled the system and the mindset in the players, in the guys, that if we’re going to win, this is how we’ve got to play … everything starts to click and then you gain momentum and then you gain confidence and now the escalator’s going up instead of down.”
The escalator started going up in game 16 when Giroux scored his first goal of the season to give the Flyers some life. They finished the regular season 21-3-0 when Giroux put the puck in the net.
“He started getting hot and players around started feeling it and getting hot themselves,” defenceman Hal Gill said. “I don’t know if there’s one thing: it’s just a mentality and things turned.”
Players point to several reasons why the Flyers climbed from last in the Metropolitan Division in November to third place by the time the season was over. Winger Scott Hartnell complimented Berube’s more simple style of play, and Voracek thinks he and his teammates are skating better.
Goaltending was another major reason, which also means it’s now the Flyers’ biggest question mark. Regardless of some unfavourable stats, Emery’s play this season is something teammates can draw confidence from.
“A lot of games we left (goaltenders) hanging to dry, especially Ray,” Streit said. “He played unbelievable games and he still lost, but he made some key saves. Every time he gets the call, he plays really well and he’s a warrior. He’s mentally strong and he plays for the team and he’s been a great teammate. We’re lucky to have a really good goaltending duo.”
And a coach whose calmer demeanour has been an improvement.
“I think he finds the right words,” Streit said of Berube. “Even when we had a bad stretch, he stays calm and he tells exactly what he wants, but he’s not yelling and screaming around the locker-room. He’s very strict with what he wants, and I think that’s great. Even on the bench he’s calm and I think that helps the team a lot.”
This week it has been Berube’s job to help the Flyers move past their journey to playoffs and focus on the Rangers.
“That’s one season and it’s over now,” Berube said. “The other one starts Thursday. The intensity level really has to rise. Every player. When the playoffs roll around the intensity is magnified by 100.”
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