The Flyers are returning to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the 17th time in their last 19 seasons after a 5-2 win over the Florida Panthers Tuesday night. The win, paired with a loss by the New Jersey Devils on Monday, ensured the Flyers of at least a wild-card spot and they could finish as high as second in the Metropolitan Division, depending on how things shake out with the remaining games on both Philadelphia’s and the Rangers’ schedules.
Though making the postseason is something that has come to be expected with the Orange-and-Black, there is something more gratifying about the 2013-2014 season. In terms of uncontrollable factors, the Flyers would be playing in a juiced-up division which was essentially the same as their old one, plus the Capitals, Hurricanes, and Blue Jackets. Philadelphia would have to deal with a near-month long break at a crucial stretch of the season and, like every other team in the league, have the latter stages of their schedule condensed into a tight window. It’s hard to imagine, but the Flyers probably wish that all they had to deal with was the rigors of every other NHL team had to over the course of the season.
Instead, a campaign that was supposed to take the foul taste of last season’s strike-shortened fiasco out of our mouths started out about as poorly as possible. Due in large part to the fact that former coach, Peter Laviolette, apparently had checked out and ran one of the poorest training camps that owner Ed Snider had ever witnessed, the Flyers stumbled out of the gate in a big way. Laviolette was shown the door after just three games and his assistant, Craig Berube, took the reins. At first, the team’s prospects did not look much better under ‘Chief’ than they had with Laviolette calling the shots. They would struggle to a 1-7-0 stretch and, according to SportsClubStats.com, had less than a 10% chance of making the postseason.
A few days following their seventh loss, a particularly pitiful display at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins, captain Claude Giroux, who was mired in arguably the worst stretch of his professional career, made a bold prediction to say the least.
There have been times throughout this Flyers season where I have looked at the team and simply could not see a contender in front of me. Perhaps it was the frustration of the poor start acting as dimly-lit sunglasses, but it felt impossible for me to envision a playoff-caliber team on the ice. Even if the team was somehow able to turn things around, they had already dug themselves in such a deep hole. With the teams in the division also fighting for the precious spots in the postseason tournament, the Flyers had set themselves back so far that missing the playoffs for a second straight season seemed like a formality.
Yet here I sit, a little over five months after Giroux’s proclamation, and the Flyers are officially returning to the postseason. The burden of wearing the ‘C’ is a substantial one and any NHL captain will defend the magnitude that it holds. That being said, the lambasting that Giroux faced on both a local and national level makes you wonder how the fiery center kept his focus on the ultimate prize. Since predicting a playoff appearance, the Flyers are 40-22-9. Giroux, following his two-goal performance against the Panthers, has 81 points and has inserted himself into the conversation for the Hart Trophy, given annually to the NHL’s MVP. Sidney Crosby will win the award, as he should. Still, what Giroux has done from a leadership and competitive standpoint is worth mentioning.
There are several members of the team and coaching staff who deserve credit alongside the captain. The Flyers have seven 20+ goal scorers (Giroux, Wayne Simmonds, Matt Read, Brayden Schenn, Vincent Lecavalier, Scott Hartnell, and Jakub Voracek), the only team in the NHL that can currently boast such a feat. Steve Mason made good on the Flyers bold investment in the former Calder Trophy Winner and led a new team, in one of the most unfriendly goalie environments in the NHL, to the playoffs. Even Paul Holmgren, who were it not for Ruben Amaro Jr. would be burned in effigy at the completion of every offseason, can stake a major claim to this team’s success. By season’s end, all three of the team’s marquee free agent acquisitions: Lecavalier, Mark Streit, and Ray Emery had turned in game-altering performances and all three might be playing their best hockey of the season. Toss in the deadline acquisition of Andy MacDonald and refusing to part ways with what is becoming a more impressive minor league system, and one has to tip his cap to the embattled Flyers GM. Last, but not least, Berube’s ability to keep the team on an even-keel through a roller coaster campaign was worthy of Coach of the Year consideration.
At the end of the day, and the team will be the first to say this, Giroux is the engine that makes the Flyers go and the team would not be in this position without a titanic effort from the 26-year-old centerman. No one else in the locker room would have stood in front of the cut-throat Flyers beat force and utter such a prediction. Giroux, after finding his own niche as a leader, has developed a keen sense of what his team needs to hear and see. At that time, when everything was working against them and hope seemed lost just eight games into the season, Giroux took a chance on what he thought his team needed to hear. Now the Flyers are just over a week away from the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, where anything can happen. (following picture courtesy of @NHLFlyers)