PHILADELPHIA - The Flyers had the Stanley Cup in their arena. They saw it hoisted, passed around, shaken in celebration—and then packed on a plane headed toward Chicago.
This season, the Flyers want to be the team drinking from the Stanley Cup.
So close to missing the post-season entering the last game of the regular season, Philadelphia mastered the art of the comeback in the playoffs and soared all the way to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals. The Chicago Blackhawks put a sudden end to its hunt for its first title since 1975, but the Flyers return this year believing they can win it all.
Somewhat lost in the hoopla of the championship run was the fact the Flyers were one goal away from missing the playoffs. They won a shootout against the Rangers on the final day to make the post-season—and kept going until June.
So are they really a mediocre bunch of talent that got hot at the right time or a loaded roster that underachieved in the regular season before playing to their potential over a riveting Stanley Cup push?
They stunned the Bruins in the Eastern Conference semifinals and became the first NHL team in 35 years to pull off a 3-0 comeback to win a series.
Coach Peter Laviolette, starting his first full season after taking over in December, says this year's Flyers are the real deal and can contend in the Eastern Conference all season.
"Hopefully we can just keep going from there," Laviolette said. "I know it's a new year but we can certainly build upon those experiences from last year to get us off to a good start this year."
The Flyers open defence of their conference championship Thursday at Pittsburgh in the regular-season debut of the sparkling Consol Energy Center.
The Flyers are expected to have Chris Pronger, one of the NHL's top defenceman, in the lineup after off-season knee surgery. Pronger has been evasive about his availability and only practiced three times since training camp opened.
Pronger averaged nearly 26 minutes on the ice during the regular season, fifth best in the NHL. He was injured in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against Boston, yet still played a league-leading 29 minutes per game.
"He looks good, he looks like he's getting back," Laviolette said. "When Prongs is available and he starts to get close, it's good for everybody, the organization and the team, its success. He's a big part of our lineup."
He's not the only hurting Flyer.
Philadelphia opens with two huge pieces from last year's run out with injuries. Goalie Michael Leighton has a bulging disc in his back and will be out at least until the end of the month. He went 8-3 with a 2.56 goals-against average in 14 playoffs games and set a team playoff record with three shutouts after taking over for Brian Boucher.
Boucher will likely get the start against the Penguins.
Forward Ian Laperriere's career is in jeopardy as he suffers the lingering effects of post-concussion syndrome. Laperriere was hit by a puck blocking a shot late last year and fought his way back to the lineup.
He might not be so lucky to make a comeback this season.
The good news for the Flyers is they are deep, even after the salary-cap related trade of clutch goal scorer Simon Gagne to Tampa Bay and the Flyers. They boast some of the best defenceman in the league and they are rich with scorers.
Mike Richards and Jeff Carter each scored 30-plus goals and Danny Briere had 26. Briere 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.
Carter and Richards may start the season on the same line, allowing Briere to remain in the middle with Scott Hartnell and Ville Leino. The Hartnell-Briere-Leino line clicked in the playoffs and the Flyers believe that can carry over into this season (Leino's 21 points tied the NHL record for points by a rookie in one post-season).
Andrej Meszaros, Kimmo Timonen and Matt Carle team with Pronger for sturdy combinations on the blue line.
They expect to go out and prove they're the team to beat starting in October, not April.