Marcus Hayes: A little adversity hasn't discouraged Flyers

Newcomer Wayne Simmonds has helped bolster the Flyers' offense with a career-high 28 goals.
Newcomer Wayne Simmonds has helped bolster the Flyers' offense with a career-high 28 goals. (YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: April 10, 2012

IF NOTHING else, on the eve of their latest, doomed playoff adventure, the Flyers can consider themselves heroic for being there.

The team excised captain Mike Richards and scoring machine Jeff Carter.

At the insistence of its owner, it added talented, quirky franchise goalie Ilya Bryzgalov.

It began training camp without Chris Pronger, a 37-year-old defenseman with lingering injury concerns around whom the team was built, then lost him for good in November.

It incorporated Jaromir Jagr's comeback - a chancy proposition.

And, most significantly, it leaned on a flock of rookies.

Still, the Flyers won 47 games. They compiled 103 points and secured the fifth seed.

Amazing, really.

"There's always a learning process," said coach Peter Laviolette, a hard and steady hand through a season of tumult.

Except this year, the process never ended. As they enter their series Wednesday night at Pittsburgh as an underdog, the Flyers continue to evolve.

It is remarkable that they are alive at all. They burst out to a 21-8-4 start and sat atop the Eastern Conference on Dec. 21.

"There was a lot of doubt about this team coming in. The way we started, on a good stretch, erased a lot of those doubts," Danny Briere said. "We were able to keep moving forward and build on that."

That building collapses now, right?

Almost universally, the Penguins have been anointed the best team in the NHL. The Flyers beat them four times out of six this season - really, four times out of five, since Pittsburgh's win Saturday didn't matter - but that was mostly before Sidney Crosby rejoined them.

Crosby, despite all of his lip and despite the Pens' dirty play, will skate in a bubble, so fragile is his head, so important his presence to the existence and growth of the game.

So, the series effectively is over before it begins . . . right?

After all, how can the Flyers hang?

That has been the question since last summer.

They traded Richards and Carter. That was supposed to shake the organization to the core.

How could they replace Richards' grit, his all-around play, his example on the ice?

How could they replace the 36 goals that Carter averaged the previous four seasons?

Here's how:

Wayne Simmonds, a fourth-year player who was part of the Richards trade to Los Angeles, scored 28 goals, almost as many as his last two seasons combined.

Scott Hartnell, in his 11th season, used to be best known for his wild, wiry hair and his equilibrium issues. This season he notched 37 goals, a career high, and went to his first All-Star Game.

Claude Giroux went on a Hart Trophy campaign, with 93 points, third in the league, 17 more than his breakout 2010-11 season and the most by a Flyer in 13 years.

"He's become an elite player," Laviolette said.

Richards and Carter combined for 39 goals and 78 points.

"Wow. I didn't really think about it as it's going on," said Simmonds, who, to a lesser degree, became a leader on his new team . . . if only because it was a new team. "I have more of a voice. I was still 'the young guy' in LA. There are a lot of guys here younger than me. I've tried to offer what I've learned in the last 3 years."

How could they manage without Pronger?

Really, they didn't manage without Pronger as well as they hoped they would. A concussion limited him to only 13 games. They were defensively hampered, which, in turn, affected the play of Bryzgalov.

However, another excellent effort from Kimmo Timonen and a step forward from Braydon Coburn helped. The deadline addition of big Niklas Grossmann turned the defense around and helped Bryzgalov solidify himself as the No. 1 over Sergei Bobrovsky and find himself in the woods . . . sometimes with a bear. (Bryzgalov's words.)

During the season, representatives from the team and some teammates confronted Bryzgalov, whose candid evaluation of the play in front of him over the first few weeks painted him as a complainer. Bryzgalov responded with terser interviews, stingier play and a more professional regimen.

"He's preparing himself to play hockey games," Laviolette said.

No one prepared like Jagr. No one has to because no one is 40.

Like Pronger in 2009-10, Jagr helped with the various crises the cropped up. He played with Giroux and Hartnell, who had career years. He contributed 54 points and managed 73 games.

Now, Jagr will lead a team that will include at least five rookies into its archrival's lair.

"I have absolutely no doubt they're going to play a good hockey game for us," Laviolette said.

Um . . .

"It's another step," Briere acknowledged.

It's the next logical step, anyway.

Calder Trophy candidate Matt Read led the group with 24 goals, and it accounted for 128 points, the most by any team's rookies.

"That was the biggest thing I was worried about. How are we going to connect through an 82-game season?" Timonen admitted.

The connection was electric; "exuberant," Coburn said.

"They were young guys trying to prove they belong in the NHL," Briere said. "That brought a lot of excitement to the dressing room. A lot of guys who were happy to be here and would do anything to stick around."

That attitude proved infectious, and motivating. Having emerged intact and relevant, maybe the Flyers' success this season was . . . inevitable?

"You're looking at it from a negative point of view," Coburn said. "We got a lot younger. We got more depth. We solidified four solid lines. We got a Hall of Famer. And we got two really good and very competitive goalies who push each other all the time."

Still, they can't win . . . right?

Don't ask the Flyers that question.

"All we care about," Coburn said, "is the belief of the guys in the dressing room."

And that has been true all season.


Contact Marcus Hayes at hayesm@phillynews.com

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