PHILADELPHIA – Every time the Philadelphia Flyers play an important game, they break out the highlights from the glory days.
There’s Kate Smith singing “God Bless America.” There’s Bobby Clarke flashing his toothless grin after scoring a goal, and Dave (The Hammer) Schultz throwing punches. Of course, there’s video of that unforgettable ticker-tape parade on Broad Street following their first Stanley Cup victory in 1974.
The reminder of the past always hypes up the crowd and gets the building rocking.
It has yet to help the Flyers make new championship memories.
Another season ended early for the Flyers when they were knocked out in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs Saturday by the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games.
It’s now been 34 years since the Flyers won consecutive Stanley Cup titles. That’s unacceptable for an organization that sets the bar high. Of the four major pro teams in the city, only the NFL’s Eagles have a longer championship drought – 49 years.
“Every year you want to make steps as a team,” coach John Stevens said. “I thought we made big steps last year and I think we made big steps this year. It may not seem like it right now because we’re not going as far as we did last year, but we certainly put up a better fight against a team that, in my opinion, is just as good as last year. I still think we have some work to do if we want to go further.”
The Flyers had a much deeper playoff run last season, just one year removed from posting the worst record in the NHL. They reached the conference finals, losing to the Penguins in five games.
Philadelphia had a better regular season this year, finishing with two more wins (44), four more points (99) and one seed higher at No. 5. But the early playoff exit negates the positives.
“Everyone feels confident coming into the playoffs with your team and we did the same,” captain Mike Richards said. “We played well. We did a lot of good things, but the fact of the matter is we still lost and we’re out. It’s disappointing.”
The Flyers missed a chance to earn home-ice advantage against Pittsburgh by losing at home to the New York Rangers in their final game when all they needed was a tie.
They lost the first two games to the Penguins on the road and fell behind 3-1, a predicament they hadn’t overcome in 13 previous series. But the Flyers avoided elimination with a 3-0 win at Pittsburgh in Game 5, and seemingly were on the verge of forcing a seventh game when they took a 3-0 lead in the second period of Game 6.
It didn’t last.
Sidney Crosby and the Penguins rallied for a 5-3 victory, sending the Flyers off to start their summer vacations. Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh’s two stars, outplayed Richards and Jeff Carter, who scored one playoff goal after recording 46 in the regular season.
“It’s probably different for everybody, but when I played and I coach now, you get a feeling sometimes that you’re going to be playing for a while and I actually had that feeling through this whole series,” Stevens said. “I always felt like we were playing well enough that even though we were down, we could get back in it. Obviously that didn’t happen and it’s disappointing. We would have liked to be moving on.”
Though it’s difficult to look ahead after losing a playoff series, the future should be bright for the Flyers. They have a solid nucleus of young players led by Richards and Carter and skilled veterans Danny Briere and Simon Gagne. Up-and-coming youngsters Claude Giroux, Darroll Powe and Luca Sbisa could make things even more exciting.
The goaltending situation needs to be addressed in the off-season because starter Martin Biron and backup Antero Niittymaki will be unrestricted free agents.
Stevens doesn’t have to worry about his job because general manager Paul Holmgren gave him a vote of confidence. Instead, he can focus on trying to mold a roster of talented players into winners.
“We have some young guys that are incorporated in our team and have done a great job,” he said. “The leadership of our team has been almost completely overhauled, and our back end has been overhauled with some good young players. I think we have played at a level as high, if not higher, than last year. I like our team. I like where we are at. I just wish we were still playing.”