The roles are reversed for the Flyers

Posted: April 14, 2011

The Flyers were a great story in the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs. This year, they will have to try being a great team, instead.

The role of gritty underdog, backing into the playoffs then reaching the Finals despite waves of adversity? It has been recast. These Flyers can surprise only by losing in the early rounds. The expectations are different, and they should be.

"How many chances in your life are you going to get to play with this kind of team?" defenseman Kimmo Timonen said after Wednesday's practice. "Hopefully, we realize you're not going to get too many times. I've been here for a few years, and this is the best team I've been on. I truly feel this is our year."

Timonen has been on a couple of deep playoff runs in his previous three seasons with the Flyers. In 2008, his foot injury was one of the main reasons the Flyers lost the Eastern Conference finals to Pittsburgh. Last year, he won a bronze medal with the Finnish Olympic team and endured the pain of that near miss against the Chicago Blackhawks.

"Personally," Timonen said, "I'm 36. I don't know how many years I can keep going. I don't know how many years I have in these stumpy little legs. We'll see. I hope it's this year. Once you get older, once you get more experience, you realize time is closing in. You've got to take advantage every time you have a chance."

The mystery of this Flyers team is whether enough players realize that. The playoffs will provide the definitive answer after a regular season of mixed messages.

Recent results created a crisis atmosphere around this team. For a month, the Flyers appeared listless and disinterested. They were missing defenseman Chris Pronger, whose availability for the start of the playoffs has been encased in a cloud of organizational smoke. They got wildly erratic performances from some key players, including rookie goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky.

But that final month shouldn't completely negate what this team accomplished between November and March.

"I know that they're two different seasons," coach Peter Laviolette said. "We've got a good hockey team. We won a lot of games this year. Did we lose our steam at the end? Yeah. Nobody's happy about it. I'm not. The players aren't. The fans certainly aren't. The owners and management, they're not happy about it. But if you look at a body of work, it's pretty good."

It isn't easy, playing until early June, then spending a short offseason marinating in disappointment, your head full of what-if replays. Laviolette was encouraged when his team showed up for camp and the early part of the season with fresh legs and clear minds. Five years ago, coming off his Stanley Cup ride in Carolina, that wasn't the case.

"But we had a different result there," Laviolette said. "We won. When we came back into training camp the next year, we were looking around the room, where the champagne was still on the pictures on the wall.

"There was no champagne on our walls."

The only walls splashed with champagne from a Flyers Cup celebration are gone, turned into rubble across the parking lot from the Wells Fargo Center. It has been a long time for this franchise and for its fans. Last year's near miss was easier to accept because the entire wild ride was so unexpected and improbable and entertaining.

That team bum-rushed second-seeded New Jersey and future Hall of Fame goalie Martin Brodeur in the first round. Then it staged the ultimate comeback, down three games to none in the series and 3-0 in Game 7 against Boston. After a shockingly quick elimination of Montreal, the Flyers played for the Stanley Cup.

Some of us are still trying to figure out how Patrick Kane's series-winning goal got past Michael Leighton.

The lesson of last year is that we know nothing as Game 1 of the first round begins. Players were injured, missed time, and returned. Ville Leino took the elevator from the press box and became a vital part of Danny Briere's superb line. Leighton and Brian Boucher alternated starting games in net and on the injury report. Claude Giroux arrived. Laviolette pushed every right button.

There is no telling who will be the heroes if this team makes another run. That is the charm of this, the most punishing championship tournament in professional sports.

"You know what it takes to win," Laviolette said. "You've got to be on your toes, and the froth has to be coming from your mouth, and you have to be willing to tear the door off its hinges to get on the ice. Then you've got winning hockey."

The Flyers had that froth last spring. This spring will depend on whether they can summon it again.

"I like our team," Laviolette said. "I think when the puck drops, we'll be live."

It drops now.


Follow columnist Phil Sheridan on Twitter at twitter.com/SheridanScribe. Read his blog at http://go.philly.com/philabuster or his recent columns at http://go.philly.com/philsheridan

 

|
|
|
|
|