PHILADELPHIA – In the City of Brotherly Love, Flyers fans will watch the Stanley Cup finals through gritted teeth and buyers’ remorse over pricey authentic jerseys of their former stars that hang in the closet with little reason to see daylight.
Former captain Mike Richards and former standout Jeff Carter are still playing for the Los Angeles Kings weeks after the Flyers were eliminated in the post-season. The duo will be on the same line when the Kings play Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals Wednesday night in New Jersey.
Oh yeah, the Devils.
New Jersey spoiled the Flyers’ season with a five-game elimination in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Up the turnpike, the Devils will try to win their fourth championship since 1995 while the Flyers are on a Cup drought that stretches back to 1975.
This series between bitter rivals vs. bitter breakup could be tortuous to watch for the orange-and-black faithful. Just not for founder and owner Ed Snider.
“It doesn’t make it bitter at all,” Snider said by phone from California on Tuesday. “Quite frankly, I think it’s more interesting to watch. I am very fond of Richards and Carter. I’d love to see them succeed. As far as Jersey is concerned, they beat us. If they win, at least we know we lost to the best.”
If New Jersey wins the Cup, it would continue a three-year trend of the Flyers getting eliminated in the playoffs by the eventual champion. They were knocked out last year by Boston, lost the 2010 Stanley Cup finals to Chicago, and lost in the first round vs. Pittsburgh in 2009.
Snider has remained optimistic the Flyers are still championship contenders.
General manager Paul Holmgren’s gamble last summer to trade Richards and Carter in the prime of their careers yielded mixed results. The Flyers won 47 games, totalled 103 points, finished fifth in the Eastern Conference and had a six-game post-season series win over odds-on favourite Pittsburgh.
But the run lasted only five more games, thanks to the Devils.
Philadelphia’s future title aspirations rest largely on goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov. Carter and Richards were moved in part to make salary room for the Russian, who frustrated his team and fans more than he dazzled them in net in his first season.
Bryzgalov was never better than in March when he opened with seven straight wins and had shutouts in four of his first five games. He finished 10-2-1 with a 1.43 goals-against average and .947 save percentage.
But he’s paid to win in April, May and June. And in the post-season, well, Bryzgalov posted a 3.46 goals-against average. Not good enough.
Snider, moving forward, is counting on Bryzgalov to play more like the goalie who shined in March.
“I hope that’s the guy we traded for. I think it is,” Snider said. “He’s an emotional guy and got off to a somewhat of a rocky start. I think we’re only going to see much better things from him.”
Snider called Bryzgalov “thoughtful, intelligent” and was hopeful “March is not an anomaly of what we’re going to see on a consistent basis.” Snider said Bryzgalov should benefit from learning what expectations are like from hockey-mad fans and how to handle the pressure of greater media scrutiny.
“I think because we, as an organization, have had goaltending issues for years, I think it was more intense than anybody would expect,” Snider said. “To have a spotlight on him like that, it’s got to be difficult. But I’m not here to make excuses for anybody. What I’m trying to tell you is that he’s been through all that and I’m hopeful we’re going to see more of March than October and November.”
Snider said coach Peter Laviolette did a “great job,” but added the goal is always higher than second-round eliminations. He also backed Holmgren’s decision to trade Carter and Richards and was steadfast in his belief the acquisitions of forwards Jakub Voracek, Brayden Schenn, Wayne Simmonds and Sean Couturier—the total haul in the two separate trades—left them more suited to compete for championships years down the road.
“I think we’re better off,” Snider said, “but I’m not getting into details.”
He was more expansive on why the Flyers fell short of a deeper post-season run—injuries to defencemen Chris Pronger and Andrej Meszaros that weakened one of their preseason strong points.
“We don’t like to cry about injuries, but when you lose arguably one of the best defenceman in the league, basically for the season, it’s difficult,” Snider said. “When you lose one of your top defenceman for the playoffs, Meszaros, it’s very hard to overcome those kinds of things.”
But every Cup contender has to overcome at least one major obstacle.
Favourites like the Flyers, Penguins, Rangers and Canucks failed to handle their roadblocks. That left the eighth-seeded Kings playing the sixth-seeded Devils while the Flyers watch from home.
“It’s not so great for someone like me, when we work our butt off and we think we’re in a position to win and we don’t,” Snider said. “But at least we’re competitive every year. A lot of teams in the last three years would have liked to have gone to the finals once and the second round twice. I’m not saying we’re satisfied with that, but it’s certainly not failure.”