By the end of the playoffs, though, there were two things that defined those Flyers: The game of Goaltender Roulette that prolonged the first-round playoff series against an inferior Buffalo team to seven games, and the malaise that pervaded the last couple of months of the season.
A year later, so much seems different. Fewer people likely see the Flyers as a team that could win the Cup this year but, at the same time, they have played so much better down the stretch than last season, and it does make you wonder. Most everyone will point to the change in personnel and chemistry and leadership, with the offseason megadeals that sent away team captain Mike Richards and running mate Jeff Carter, but it is more complicated than that.
Some of it, the Flyers say, was the simple fact that, at the beginning of March this year, they had nothing locked up. Any kind of slump would have dropped them down to the point where making the playoffs at all would have been an issue.
They played better this time because they had no choice.
"I know, every year, you try to focus on the last couple of weeks," defenseman Matt Carle said. "The last 10, 20 games of the season, you really want to start playing playoff hockey - and I'm not sure we've done that yet this season. But we have been playing better than we were last year.
"I don't think it's any one thing. It might just be where we were in the standings. We were at the top all year and we were just trying to hang on down the stretch last year. This year, we were trying to push and push and get in a better playoff position. Maybe that factors into it. Last year, we were sitting at the top and watching other teams start to play well and maybe we were gripping our sticks a little bit. We clinched the playoffs early and it was like, 'Let's just get [the playoffs] going.' This year, we needed to get points."
But Carter? Richards? The personnel changes? Too simple?
"Yeah," Carle said, shaking his head before the question was even finished. "I don't think it's any one thing. The guys that were here last year had the same goal and the same aspirations. That didn't change with the people we brought in this year. I'm sure people will look at it and point to that as the reason, but I really don't think that's it."
If the argument is whether the atmosphere around the team lightened with the trades, that is a fair observation. But in the end, atmosphere is not what turned the Flyers into a team that won 10 of its first 13 games in March. Well before that was the decision by general manager Paul Holmgren to add defensemen Pavel Kubina and Nicklas Grossmann to help fill the void left by the injured Chris Pronger. (Remember, Pronger was hurt down the stretch last year, too.) And even more important than all of that was the way goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov found himself and was probably the league's best performer, week after week.
Atmosphere? Put it this way: it mattered a lot less than goaltending.
"Last season, I don't know if we had the mentality that once the playoffs rolled around, we would just flip the switch and play better again, or what," defenseman Braydon Coburn said. "That was a valuable lesson to learn.
"When you're playing for something, it's always good. This year, we've been kind of battling for playoff position, playing meaningful games. That helps. To me, that's what comes to mind, the meaningful games this year."
Starting Wednesday in Pittsburgh, the games become even more meaningful. And while it is true that no one wins the Stanley Cup in March, and that the Flyers are unlikely to be the betting favorite in any playoff series this spring, they are an interesting bunch. The goaltender is capable of, well, anything. Dynamic kids litter the roster and kids in the playoffs are capable of, well, you get it.
As Coburn said, "We've got a lot of young guys, and I think they're extremely excited to be in the playoffs. Does that have anything to do with how we're playing? Yeah, maybe. It might."
And, well, put it this way: This time, whatever happens, the buildup to the playoffs has to leave them hopeful.
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