76ers, Flyers ready for postseason return

April 5, 2008 7:42:31 PM PDT
The Philly Phlop is over. One season was all that was needed for the Flyers and 76ers to go from the sidelines to selling postseason tickets.

Turn on the lights at the Wachovia Center this April. Order some extra grub for the all-you-can-eat seats. Tell Jason Smith (the Flyers captain) and Jason Smith (the Sixers 7-foot rookie) they can come along for the ride. And if 75-year-old chairman Ed Snider totally loses his voice, hey, it will definitely be worth it.

The 76ers' three-year rebuilding plan? Subtract two.

The Flyers' worst record in team history? It's history.

"I honestly believed we'd get to where we wanted to go," Flyers second-year coach John Stevens said.

Both Comcast-Spectacor-owned teams are in the playoffs together for the first time since 2003 and each - unbelievably - clinched a spot on Friday night. The Flyers reached the postseason for the first time in two years with a combination of their 3-0 win over New Jersey and Florida's 4-3 win over Carolina. The Sixers are in the playoffs for the first time since 2005 with a 109-104 win over the Atlanta Hawks.

"That was just one step," Sixers coach Maurice Cheeks said.

The Phillies are the defending NL East champions, making Donovan McNabb and the Eagles the only team of the four major pro Philadelphia sports not to make the playoffs this season.

The Flyers needed some help from the Panthers to complete their transformation from the worst team in the NHL (22 wins) to earning a spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs. They had the TV tuned to the game in the locker room and everyone from players to management was stuffed inside trying to catch a score. Mike Richards and Mike Knuble stood on the bench in front of their lockers to follow Florida's surprising victory.

As the finals seconds ticked off and the Flyers knew they'd be playoff-bound, they hugged and celebrated like they had won a division title. Snider and president Peter Luukko were mobbed by their players, and Stevens got congratulatory slaps on the back from his assistants.

"To feel that sense of unity in what we accomplished was awesome," said goalie Martin Biron, who had the shutout.

Snider, who had his Blackberry in hand and checked score updates from Atlanta, was hoarse and downright giddy about the Flyers clinch in the penultimate game of the 82-game season.

"I feel like we've been in the playoffs for two weeks," Snider said. "We feel like we almost won a series."

Stevens quieted everyone down and pulled them together for a celebratory address.

"This is a great, great effort. Probably the best of the year," he told the Flyers. "We're not done yet."

The Flyers (93 points) must still play for seeding in the season finale Sunday against Pittsburgh. If the Flyers beat the Penguins, they can finish seventh. If they win and Boston loses, the Flyers are sixth. A Pittsburgh win keeps Philadelphia in eighth and the two could have a rematch in a first-round series.

"We left it until the very end, but, man what a great accomplishment for this group," Stevens said.

In Atlanta, Cheeks high-fived all his players, hugged Iguodala and some others. There was a big "X" on the greaseboard to signify a playoff berth, the first one in three seasons under the fan favorite Cheeks.

"We never talked about it, but we knew what was at stake," Cheeks said.

One year after the most ghastly season in more than a decade for the Comcast-Spectacor siblings and Wachovia Center tenants, the arena will not go dark this April.

The Flyers were the worst team in the league last season (22-48-12). They missed the playoffs for the first time since 1994, and set team records for most losses and fewest points (56). Stevens, who had never coached in the NHL, was promoted when Ken Hitchcock was fired after just eight games. Offseason vacations were planned by Christmas.

General manager Paul Holmgren overhauled the roster starting at last year's trade deadline and worked all summer to acquire players like Biron, Smith, Kimmo Timonen, Scottie Upshall and All-Star center Danny Briere.

The Flyers led the Atlantic Division for a spell this season and trailed the Senators by only three points in the Eastern Conference standings on Feb. 5. They collapsed soon after and went on a 10-game losing streak that matched the longest skid in franchise history, both under Stevens.

Simon Gagne (concussion) and Derian Hatcher (broken leg) were lost for the season; Richards, Joffrey Lupul, and R.J. Umberger were among the Flyers out for long stretches with injuries; and Briere sat out Friday with a knee injury.

"To come through like they did in the end, is a real credit to the coaches for preparing the players and to the players for doing their stuff on the ice," Holmgren said.

The Sixers never thought about the playoffs during a 5-13 start that eventually got to 18-30. Andre Miller and Andre Iguodala have led a 21-7 resurgence that could rocket the 76ers into the fifth seed in the East.

"We want to position ourselves where it's a matchup where we think we can advance to the second round," Miller said.

Sure, neither team is a real threat to make a legitimate run at Philadelphia's first championship since 1983. But for a few brief, jubilant hours on Friday night, that was a concern for another day.


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