The Pittsburgh Penguins' 2008-09 path to Stanley Cup victory was paved by losing to the Detroit Red Wings in the 2007-08 finals.
Last June, when Philadelphia was defeated by the Chicago Blackhawks, they fell short of winning their first Stanley Cup since 1974-75. The current Flyers team is on pace to win 50 games for the first time since the 1985-86 season when they amassed 53 victories, but failed to appear in the finals. According to Hockeyreference.com, they have only won fifty games five times in team history. The other four times they won fifty games they went to the finals and left their fingerprints on Lord Stanley's trophy twice.
Team depth and consistency seem to indicate that members of the orange and black will each grab that Cup during a June victory lap. But, hockey-nerds and their analysis are often thrown head first into dressing room lockers everywhere. Before that happens, let's review some facts before the first playoff puck is dropped.
Chairman Ed Snider's consistent commitment to excellence is the origin of the Flyers winning legacy. At the end of last season, they trailed only the Montreal Canadiens for the best all-time winning percentage. This season, they became the first of the original expansion teams to achieve 1,000 home-ice victories.
Staying healthy is linked to a long and often-times winning run through the grueling NHL playoffs. Deep teams can survive the odyssey without some of their key components. The 1986-87 Flyers pushed one of the most dominant teams of all-time, the Edmonton Oilers, to a seventh game in that Cup series. Bill Meltzer, of Philadelphiaflyers.com, noted that they did so without 58-goal scorer Tim Kerr, who missed the entire series due to an injured shoulder.
General Manager Paul Holmgren's efforts to reload last summer moved a previously full roster past the saturation point. The lineup he has created is more than 20 players deep and seems to have enough elements to swat any potential playoff injury bugs. This former enforcer and one-time 30 goal scorer has thoughtfully built a talented group that exudes character.
Coach Peter Laviolette's steady leadership is most evident when he makes in-game adjustments, including his ability to call needed timeouts. This 2006 Carolina Cup-winning coach understands modern player psychology. Every Flyboy knows what their Dad wants them to do at the rink on game day.
Between the Pipes:
While some goalies have performed adequately in past seasons, few truly standout playoff performances were registered until last season's goalie rotation nearly brought the Cup home. If you travel to Adirondack, Michael Leighton will certainly say that 'nearly' wasn't enough. In a June, 1987 Sports Illustrated interview, Wayne Gretzky said that 1987 Cup series MVP Ron Hextall was the best goaltender that he had ever played against. Both the 1987 and 2010 Flyers teams lost the Cup, proving that varied goaltending exhibitions aren't the only element in final victory.
While shutouts have not been a part of the Flyers arsenal this season, steady goaltending has helped them to stay amongst the League leaders in points. Sergei Bobrovsky, while not perfect, wins games. 'Bob' has the best lateral movement in the League, but also has areas of his game that need improvement.
The rookie crouches very low in the net, allowing plenty of space for open targets above his shoulders. Backup Brian Boucher is also the better stick handler, which is why he generally seems to start against teams that dump and chase. Bob and Boosh have combined for a save percentage that places them in the top 2/3 of the League, which is also the same range the team falls into for shots allowed per game (30).
The six men who patrol the area in front of the net have enabled the team to be among the top 10 in fewest goals allowed. Chris Pronger, who leads the blue liners, has a presence on the ice that is reminiscent of Mark Howe's 1980's aura. While the Flyers performed well when the hulking 6'6' defenseman was briefly out with an injury, he remains a difference maker whenever he steps over the boards. While he plays a different style than Howe, there is no question that Pronger is the team's best overall defenseman since the Mike Keenan era.
Kimmo Timonen, Braydon Coburn, and Matt Carle have all performed solidly. Andrej Meszaros emergence has been the most surprising and is clearly linked to Sean O'Donnell's tutelage. Considered the third pair, these two would supplant many defensive duos on teams throughout the League. They have a strong combined +/- rating, with Meszaros often leading the League in that category.
Laviolette's ability to mix-and-match the Lego-like lines Holmgren has provided, presents an ongoing challenge for opponents. The versatility of their front lines is a key reason why they have mostly battled the Vancouver Canucks for the League lead in goals scored. They have too many offensive threats for other teams to adequately match lines against. Most opponents have been ground down by the third period in trying to hold off their top nine.
Captain Mike Richards, a complete two-way player, is amongst the top 25 players in the League in points. Claude Giroux is an all-out All-star. His on-ice vision, puck control, and passing skills are outstanding and sometimes evoke comparison to those of former Flyer and now retired Avalanche, Peter Forsberg. Giroux is complimented by Danny Briere and Jeff Carter, who also demonstrate brilliance.
The offensive contributions from Ville Leino, Scott Hartnell, James van Riemsdyk, Andreas Nodl, and Nickolay Zherdev have helped to create balanced scoring that alleviates the need for any single player, or line, to carry the scoring burden. Kris Versteeg, who was recently acquired from the Toronto Maple Leafs, further deepens the versatility of the top three lines. His Cup experience with Chicago last year sweetens the addition even further.
The checkers include Blair Betts and Darroll Powe. While team enforcers Dan Carcillo and Jody Shelley are not the best in the League, they take care of business when needed. As a result, teams don't often mess with the Flyers top guys.
Within the League this team ranks: in the top 20 on the power play, in the top 10 on the penalty kill, and in the top 10 in penalty minutes. Despite that lack of dominance, they continue to battle Vancouver for the most wins and points in the League.
This group wins games in many different ways and is resilient, which is why they have not yet had long losing streaks. They force opponents to adapt to their style of play. This should translate into playoff series victories.
Are the Philadelphia Flyers poised to win the Stanley Cup? Their roster needs to remain relatively healthy throughout April and May. If so, they appear to have their strongest chance in decades of once again hoisting that elusive silver trophy during the League's final playoff game in June.
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