VOORHEES, N.J. – Winning the Eastern Conference final would be icing on the cake for the Philadelphia Flyers.
Actually, it would mean another cake. The Flyers savoured a cake on Wednesday, the dessert becoming their tasty good-luck tradition before the first game of each playoff series. Coach John Stevens cooked up the idea as a motivational tool in the minor leagues and now he uses it on the Flyers, who – sweet tooth or toothless – want to eat cake and have their Stanley Cup, too.
“It kind of symbolizes that all the ingredients by themselves aren’t appealing, but when you mix them together and apply some fire, you come up with a better product,” Stevens said.
A better product was all the Flyers wanted this year coming off a season when they were simply the worst team around.
The worst team in the NHL. The worst team in franchise history. The worst team in Philadelphia sports.
“There were times last year when it was hard to come to the ice,” forward Mike Knuble said.
And this season?
“I’m having the time of my life right now,” centre Mike Richards said.
The Flyers’ turnaround from the bottom of the league to playing in the East final against Pittsburgh is one of the more stunning one-year transformations in NHL history. The Flyers are the first team to reach the conference finals a year after posting the worst record since the Red Wings in 1987. They vaulted from 22 wins and 56 points in 2006-07 to 42 wins and 95 points by shuffling the roster.
Danny Briere bolted Buffalo to sign an eight-year contract with the Flyers. Kimmo Timonen, Scott Hartnell, Joffrey Lupul and Jason Smith were all acquired in trades. Going back to last year’s trade deadline, Martin Biron, Braydon Coburn and Scottie Upshall all came in deals that showed Philly’s stop at the bottom would be a short one.
“Who could envision this?” Flyers GM Paul Holmgren said. “That’s easy to say based on where we were last year.”
Holmgren, in his 29th season with the Flyers, was the architect of all those trades. Holmgren played for the Flyers, coached them, was an assistant coach and assistant GM under Bob Clarke so he understood better than most that last year’s dismal effort no way represented one of the more decorated teams in the NHL.
Holmgren was named interim general manager early last season when Clarke stepped away, citing burnout. The Flyers considered other candidates even as Holmgren dutifully started the rebuilding process.
“I looked at it like the job’s mine now, so I’m going to do the best you can right now,” he said. “If you do that, chances are, things are going to work out.”
Once named permanent GM, Holmgren really started to shuffle the roster. Now chairman Ed Snider, who once worried Holmgren’s thinking was too aligned with Clarke’s, believes he has the best executive in the league.
“I think he should be executive of the year,” Snider said. “I don’t even think there’s a close second with what this guy has done. He makes the right calls, mostly all the time. I’m thrilled with everything he’s done.”
That includes sticking with Stevens, the mild-mannered second-year coach who was on the hot seat during a mid-season 10-game losing streak. Instead of making a panic move, Holmgren showed faith in Stevens.
He also got him some help. Defenceman Jaroslav Modry and winger Vaclav Prospal were acquired at the trade deadline and Patrick Thoresen was signed off waivers.
Briere (14) and Prospal (12) are 1-2 in playoff points for the Flyers, and Biron has made the kind of saves that invoked Stanley Cup winning goalie Bernie Parent’s name more than a few times in Philadelphia. Upshall scored the winning goal in Game 5 against Montreal and Timonen has been their defensive stopper in both series.
“It’s more than hockey players,” Stevens said. “It’s the character of players we brought in across the board.”
Smith is the Flyers captain, just like he was in Edmonton. Timonen and Briere also were captains on their former teams and Cup winning defenceman Derian Hatcher briefly wore the C on his sweater for the Flyers.
“We have people who have been through it and experienced it, not only playing, but in the leadership areas of the game,” Holmgren said.
When the Flyers really needed leadership Holmgren was the one who delivered the verbal blow. He blasted the Flyers’ effort after a 7-1 loss to Pittsburgh on March 16 that left them clinging to a one-point lead for the eighth and final playoff spot.
“I think it was an embarrassing moment for all of us, not necessarily to lose 7-1, but the way we lost,” he said. “We didn’t have a whole lot of emotion, a whole lot of passion at that time. Maybe it woke everybody up.”
Philadelphia responded with wins in seven of its final nine games to clinch the sixth seed. They knocked off Washington in seven games in the first round, then bounced the Canadiens in five.
“That moment was when we started to focus on us instead of worrying about who we were playing or how they were going to play,” Briere said of the six-goal loss. “It’s been working ever since.”