MONTREAL – A lot of the young, budding stars on the Philadelphia Flyers probably couldn’t see the benefit of going through the experience of finishing dead last in the NHL while it was happening last year.
But they do now.
“It made us grow up,” said R.J. Umberger, who turned 26 on Saturday and celebrated with two more goals that helped put his Flyers in the Eastern Conference Final by completing a 4-1 series win over the Montreal Canadiens.
“I think those were the toughest times any of us have felt in our careers,” Umberger continued. “To re-group and mentally re-focus for this year, I think there were a lot of benefits out of that. If you look at it on paper it was a terrible year for a lot of us, but it probably helped out a lot of us.”
Umberger emerged in the second round as this year’s unexpected playoff star, scoring eight goals in the five-game series, but he is only one of a handful of young, promising Flyers who went through the rigours of last season and are reaping the rewards now.
“It’s a total 180,” said centre Mike Richards. “We have confidence in this group, we’re playing well together and Marty (Biron) is keeping us in a lot of the hockey games. I think everybody’s just playing their best hockey and that’s what you need. We’re getting wins by committee.”
Richards, 23, and Umberger were two of eight Flyers in uniform Saturday aged 26 and under. Of those players, only Joffrey Lupul, Scott Hartnell and Patrick Thoresen did not finish last season with the Flyers, and GM Paul Holmgren is convinced the pain of losing helped lead to the joy of winning.
“We had such a bad year last year as a franchise, but a lot of our young players were put in tough spots and I’m sure they learned something,” Holmgren said. “They had a bad taste in their mouths over the summer.”
Of course, no team can succeed on youth alone, and Holmgren deserves much of the credit for quickly assembling the pieces to make the Flyers into an instant contender that is now only eight wins away from going worst to first.
There were nine of his acquisitions – either through a trade or free agent signing – since the February of 2007 who played a major role in the Flyers win over the Canadiens, including the top defence pairing of Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn as well as the top line of Daniel Briere, Vaclav Prospal and Hartnell.
“The right guys were brought in here,” Umberger said.
“The organization did an incredible job re-tooling our team and giving us a chance to compete this year.”