PHILADELPHIA – Scott Hartnell celebrated in the locker room with a black championship hat on his head and an orange title T-shirt over his shoulder.
The Philadelphia Flyers can tack on a new year to their Atlantic Division champions banner. They hope it’s the start toward raising more prestigious ones on next season’s opening night.
Hartnell and Andrej Meszaros each scored two goals, and the Flyers clinched the division title and the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference with a 7-4 win over the New York Islanders on Saturday night.
The Flyers blew leads of 2-0 and 3-2 before Hartnell put them ahead for good late in the second period. The Flyers open defence of their conference championship next week on home ice against the seventh-seeded Buffalo Sabres.
The Sabres beat the Flyers 4-3 in overtime on Friday night.
“It was nice to get that winning feeling back in there,” Hartnell said. “The smiles, the laughs. It couldn’t have happened better to have it here at home.”
Even with 47 wins, the Flyers are stumbling into the playoffs. They failed to hold leads against one of the NHL’s worst teams and yanked post-season starting goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, but snapped a five-game losing streak (0-3-2) and ended a six-game skid at home (0-2-4).
The Flyers won the division for the first time since 2003-04—a minor consolation after they squandered their lead atop the East to Washington with the late-season swoon.
“I don’t really remember the problems,” said Hartnell, smiling. “It’s definitely a big relief.”
Kimmo Timonen and Danny Briere also scored for the Flyers, and Darroll Powe added an empty-netter with 1 second left.
Michael Grabner, Travis Hamonic, John Tavares and P.A. Parenteau scored for the Islanders. The Islanders finished 30-39-13 and with 73 points. Only Florida was worse in the East.
“We knew this game meant a lot for them and for us coming down the stretch,” Tavares said. “It’s been about how we can get better. All we have to do as a team is, next year, put it all together and compete right until the end of the season and put us in a position to make the playoffs.”
Philadelphia’s slump may not mean anything once the playoffs start. The Flyers ended last season losers of eight of 12, but turned the corner in the playoffs and reached Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals before losing to Chicago.
But pulling Bobrovsky in the finale can’t make the Flyers faithful who have waited since 1975 for a Stanley Cup championship feel good about their chances.
They hope the likely return of defenceman Chris Pronger, out since late February with a broken right hand, will give them the emotional boost they need.
The Flyers needed 47 seconds to score the first two goals of the game and the No. 2 seed seemed a mere formality. Instead, Bobrovsky coughed up the lead and was replaced late in the first period after allowing three goals on 10 shots.
Brian Boucher gave up one more goal in relief, but was bailed out by Hartnell’s first two-goal game since Jan. 11.
The Flyers improved to 24-2 against the Islanders since the start of the 2007-08 season.
With a loss, the Flyers would have been forced to wait until Pittsburgh’s finale on Sunday to find out if they would still win the division or finish no worse than fourth in the East.
Instead, they can start prepping for the post-season.
Philly opened as if it couldn’t wait to get there. Timonen blasted his sixth goal of the year from the high slot 16 seconds into the game. Hartnell’s first goal of the game at the 47-second mark came off a breakaway for a 2-0 lead.
The Islanders called a 30-second timeout and another sellout crowd was roaring in celebration.
Bobrovsky couldn’t make it last.
Ville Leino’s turnover at centre ice led to Grabner’s 34th goal—and meant the Flyers finished the season without a shutout. Hamonic scored on a one-timer on the power play for his fifth goal to the tie it.
Briere stole the puck at the blue line and his backhander made it 3-2 before the first period was even at the halfway point.
When Tavares tied the game with his 29th goal, that was all Flyers coach Peter Laviolette could stomach of his rookie goalie. He called on Boucher after passing over the veteran for the starting job in the post-season. Boucher started last year’s post-season as Philadelphia’s No. 1 goalie before an injury knocked him out.
The swap meet continued in the second: Parenteau pounded in a rebound for a 4-3 lead; Meszaros tied it with a shot through traffic.
Hartnell’s 24th goal of the year with 1:31 left in the second put the Flyers ahead 5-4 and they wouldn’t trail again. Meszaros added an insurance goal in the third.
“Now the real season starts,” Boucher said. “It’s what we’ve been waiting for since last year.”
Notes: The Flyers presented their team awards before the game. Claude Giroux was named MVP, Meszaros was top defenceman, Andreas Nodl was most improved, Boucher was the Flyer who best illustrates character, dignity and respect for the sport both on and off the ice. … The Flyers won their 16th division title. … The Flyers swept the season series against the Isles (6-0) for the second time in three years, and the third time in team history.