PHILADELPHIA – The Flyers’ run from worst team in the NHL to Eastern Conference finals died a year ago in Pittsburgh. They pick up this year’s post-season run where they left off, ready for some retribution against the Penguins.
“They knocked us out, so even though it’s a year ago, it’s still pretty fresh in our minds,” Flyers forward Mike Knuble said. “We have a chance to get back at them and win the series with their advantage and home ice.”
Yes, the Penguins hold the home-ice edge when they play Game 1 of the best-of-seven series against the Flyers on Wednesday. All the Flyers needed was one point in Sunday’s season finale to clinch the fourth seed and start the series in Philadelphia, but they wasted a third-period lead, blew their shot at a 100-point season, and have to hit the road.
The home ice didn’t help the Flyers in a 4-3 loss to New York. The raucous soldout crowd meant nothing when the Rangers, who already had their playoff route locked up, scored twice in the third to stun the Flyers (44-27-11). Maybe some time away from the Wachovia Center might not be the worst situation for the wildly inconsistent Flyers.
“I’m a little ticked off about this one,” centre Daniel Briere said.
Philadelphia opened on the road last season in all three rounds and won two series, against Washington and Montreal, before they were eliminated by the Penguins in five games.
The Flyers went 2-2-2 against Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the Penguins (45-28-9) this year, and three of the games were decided by one goal. It will be the fifth post-season meeting between the two teams and the Flyers hold a 3-1 edge. Both teams won 20 road games this season.
“It makes the road a little bit more difficult,” Knuble said. “There are no easy matchups out there. You’re going to have to win on the road and you’re going to have to win at home, no matter where you’re going in these playoffs. Yeah, it gets a little bit more difficult, but hopefully we learned a lot last year and we’ll apply that this year in the playoffs.”
The Flyers and Penguins were heading in different directions in the Eastern Conference standings heading into the post-season. Pittsburgh, a Stanley Cup finalist last season, were 27-25-5 and outside the playoff picture when Dan Bylsma was named interim coach on Feb. 15. The Penguins closed the season on a 7-2-1 run (16-3-4 since the coaching change) and surged into fourth while the Flyers struggled to a 4-5-1 finish and haven’t won consecutive games since March 22-23.
Last year the Flyers came into the playoffs off a 7-1-1 finish, setting the tone for a trip to the conference finals only one year after posting the worst record in the NHL.
Sunday’s loss to the Rangers seemed to sum up all that was wrong with the Flyers down the stretch. Briere complained about a listless effort and said the Flyers were playing for a point instead playing for a victory. When they lost, the attitude in the locker-room was more about, “Hey, we have to play on the road anyway,” instead of anger at a blown opportunity.
“I think it’s almost our destiny,” Flyers coach John Stevens said. “It’s probably my fault because nothing for me ever comes easy.”
Briere was the only Flyer to openly criticize the third-period meltdown.
“It’s not good enough,” he said.
Jeff Carter, Simon Gagne, Mike Richards and Scott Hartnell give the Flyers four 30-goal scorers and Briere, healthy again after missing most of the season with groin injuries, is a proven post-season scorer. Gagne didn’t play in the conference finals after missing the end of last season with the lingering effects of a concussion.
Malkin led the NHL in assists and points this year, and Crosby was second in assists and third in points. Malkin has 13 goals and 31 points in 21 regular-season games against the Penguins.
Pittsburgh eliminated the Flyers with a 6-0 victory last year and scored at least four goals in all four victories. Flyers goalie Martin Biron, who carried the Flyers in the first two rounds last season, knows he’ll have to do a better job stopping the Penguins than he did a year ago for Philadelphia to play another series.
“We’ve got a team here that knows how to play on the road,” Biron said. “We’re going to go and do what we did last year in the first couple of rounds.”