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Flyers open defence of conference title with Pronger, Richards possibly on shelf

PHILADELPHIA - The only Stanley Cup photos at the Flyers practice rink were from the 1970s. The locker-room walls in their home arena were spotless. The mood was a bit reserved.

This training camp scene, some eight months ago, was all the proof coach Peter Laviolette needed to know his team had the oomph to win the Stanley Cup they fell two wins shy of bringing back to Philadelphia in June.

"There was no champagne on the walls," Laviolette said Wednesday.

Translation: No title, no party, no complacency.

Laviolette should know. A year after leading Carolina to its only Stanley Cup championship in 2006, he opened a training camp that had celebratory reminders in every nook of the organization. Parade pictures. Postgame celebration photos. The locker room felt stale, a booze-soaked reminder that everything the Hurricanes wanted to accomplish, well, they did.

They never made the playoffs again under Laviolette, and he was fired 2 1/2 years later.

Things might be different in Philadelphia. After all, Laviolette might be a Stanley Cup title away from a lifetime contract—and their decor will surely need a makeover.

He not only pushed the Flyers into the playoffs a year after their Game 6 loss to Chicago in the Stanley Cup finals, he has them positioned as the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference when they open Game 1 against Buffalo on Thursday.

A late-season slump has been rolled up like game-used tape and tossed in the trash. The orange-and-black believe the Cup can come back to Philadelphia. After all, the Flyers led the East for most of the season.

"I just think we have a lot of guys that are big-time players and show up for big games," forward Danny Briere said.

Winning a championship means tossing obstacles under the Zamboni on the way to the next round. And the Flyers have a few heading into their series with the seventh-seeded Sabres. Rookie goalie Sergei Bobrovsky has new pressures in the post-season and defenceman Chris Pronger may not play early in the series with a broken hand.

Even team captain Mike Richards skipped practice Wednesday to recover from whatever minor ailments are bugging him.

Oh, and that slump of 14 losses since Feb. 26 was a No. 1 seed dealbreaker.

"It's not a big deal to us," Briere said. "Yes, we had that tough stretch at the end. But it was the same thing last year. You have to show up when things matter most. I really believe, just like I believed last year, in my team and teammates."

Briere gave the Flyers every reason to believe they'd swig from the Cup down Broad Street. He finished as the leading scorer in the post-season with 30 points (12 goals, 18 assists). He also set the Flyers' franchise record for post-season scoring, eclipsing Brian Propp's 12 goals and 28 points in 1987.

Briere had 12 points (three goals, nine assists) in the last series, the most in the finals since Mario Lemieux had 12 in 1991, and was one point shy of Wayne Gretzky's NHL record set in 1988.

He has some added incentive in this series against Buffalo, the organization where he blossomed into a star and co-captain, and spurned in 2007 to sign a US$52 million, eight-year deal with the Flyers.

"The people that didn't want me are gone now," Briere said. "There's nothing personal about it. I don't see it as payback or anything like that."

The Sabres are under new ownership and quickly showed their new boss they've been worth the investment.

Buffalo finished the regular season with only one regulation loss in the last 13 games, and went 16-4-4 after Terry Pegula purchased the team in late February. Going back to Dec. 28, when the run truly started, the Sabres are 29-11-6, and the 64 points they accumulated were the most in the Eastern Conference over that span.

"I think there was a lot of points in the season where we were looking for some direction and looking for something positive to hang onto and establish ourselves," Sabres goalie Ryan Miller said. "It took us a little while to get going, but we got going finally, and now we're just trying to play a team game."

Miller won 34 games and had five shutouts this season, easily giving the edge in net to Buffalo. Meanwhile, Bobrovsky, who speaks little English, sat quietly and alone as he unlaced his skates at his locker after Wednesday's practice. No one really bugged him and he seemed unconcerned by the media horde in the centre of the room.

Asked how he felt, Bobrovsky said "excited" and "nervous."

The Flyers could be the latter without Pronger—the anchor of one of the toughest backlines in the NHL—who has been sidelined since having hand surgery in March. He is a gameday decision for Game 1. A former NHL MVP, Pronger also missed time with a foot injury and was limited to just 50 games this season.

"He's a great player. He's a big part of the team," defenceman Kimmo Timonen said, "But he's not here. I haven't seen too many guys help us from the press box."

The Flyers gave Richards a "maintenance" day off Wednesday. Asked why Richards was not at practice, Laviolette created a brief stir when he said all injuries and status updates come from general manager Paul Holmgren. Laviolette hesitated when asked if Richards would play the opener, then referred the question to Holmgren.

Holmgren said all players aside from Pronger are healthy.

Buffalo has some lingering injury issues, as well. Defenceman Andrej Sekera (29 points) missed the last two games with an upper-body injury. He skated at Wednesday's practice and is cautiously optimistic he'll be in the lineup for Game 1.

One way or the other, coach Lindy Ruff expected the Sabres to be ready against the Atlantic Division champions.

"We've got some young guys that are going to get a great experience," he said. "You hope they flourish and hope they can be up to the challenge. You don't know until you get in there."


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