The Flyers clinched a berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs last night by virtue of a topsy-turvy, 5-2 win over the Panthers in Game 79 of this amazing slog.
Their celebration was short-lived, with their 2010 victory anthem - Michael Jackson's "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" - playing in a buzzing locker room. The playoffs, after all, are expected in Philadelphia. Berube needed a minute to pause and reflect with his players. He delivered a rare postgame address to remind them of the significance.
Yes, this is the Flyers' 37th time advancing to the playoffs in 46 seasons of play, but they were one of 14 teams watching sports' best tournament go on without them last season. The playoffs aren't a given anymore in the NHL.
"I told the guys they should be proud of themselves. They went through a lot," Berube said. "They battled hard all year. They're a good group of guys, good character, and they deserve a lot of credit for making the playoffs."
They started 1-7-0, collecting just two out of a possible 16 points. Claude Giroux promised then, on Oct. 21, that he would get the Flyers there. To get them there, the Flyers would require 90 or 92 additional points from that moment - meaning they would need to play at a 102-point pace for the rest of the season.
Giroux delivered. The Flyers are 40-22-9 in the 71 games since his promise - a 103-point pace over a full 82-game season.
"[People] looked at me with crazy eyes when I said that. I just believed in our team," Giroux said. "It was only eight games. Eight-two games is a lot of games. We had to believe in ourselves. When we started believing how good we were, we started winning games.
"It didn't come after one night, after one game, after one practice. It was slow, about everyone coming together. We have four lines rolling. We have eight 'D' that can play a lot of minutes. And we had two good goaltenders."
Inside that locker room - with the motivational posters and the '80s music - this group of Flyers is an exceptionally cohesive one, molded together with the help of Giroux, a veteran leadership group, some newcomers and a couple of happy rookies.
They began the year as a fragile and fractured group - something that was an unfortunate staple not only last season, but even prior, as star players were jettisoned for a disinterest in team unity. Where the Flyers are now is a testament to their bond.
"The chemistry among us was there, but we found a way to get the chemistry [going] on the ice," Giroux said. "When we started doing that, we started winning games. Our confidence came back."
Berube pointed to the Flyers' post-Christmas trip to the West Coast as the turning point. The Flyers collected wins over Edmonton, Vancouver, Calgary and Phoenix before returning East with a win in New Jersey.
"We went there with a purpose, we came out with five wins out of six on that road trip. That's pretty good," Berube said. "That made believers out of our team more than anything and put us in a good situation."
With last night's win, the Flyers avoided being swept in South Florida for the fourth time in franchise history. They played a sleepy first period, scored four times in the second, and hung goaltender Steve Mason out to dry in the third.
On a clinching night with two goals, Giroux seemed to relax a bit and return to his jovial self - but not without a teaching moment.
"The third period was terrible," Giroux said. "We let Mason play by himself. It's not acceptable, even if it's 4-0. We only have three games where we can work on our game and be ready for the playoffs."
It was ugly, but it earned the Flyers their coveted berth with games to spare. Trailing by two points with one game in hand, they still have a chance to catch the Rangers for second place in the Metropolitan Division. Who would have thought?
"It's a great accomplishment," Mason said. "But it's something in this organization that is expected. This is one goal that was achieved. Now, we have a bigger one."
Steve Mason (33-18-7) matched his career high in wins for a season . . . The Flyers also clinched a playoff spot with a win over Florida on April 7, 2009 . . . Vinny Lecavalier became the Flyers' league-high seventh 20-goal scorer of the season . . . Tampa Bay goaltender Ben Bishop left last night's game vs. Toronto with an apparent shoulder injury. The Flyers visit the Lightning tomorrow night.
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