Flyers in East finals year after worst record

May 4, 2008 8:53:33 PM PDT
In three weeks, Philadelphia will mark 25 empty years without a championship. That's a demoralizing 0-for-Flyers, Phillies, Eagles and 76ers.

Not since May 31, 1983, when the 76ers capped a four-game sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers with a 115-108 victory have any of the four major professional teams been able to celebrate a title and stage a parade.

The Flyers are playing like a team determined to snap that torturous drought before it hits 26.

Eight wins down, eight wins to go.

Up ahead, a trip to the Eastern Conference finals against Pittsburgh that puts the Flyers a series victory away from playing for the Stanley Cup for the first time since they were swept by Detroit in 1997.

"It's the battle of Pennsylvania, I guess," Flyers coach John Stevens said Sunday. "We're excited with the opportunity. It doesn't matter who you're playing, the fact you're playing is the main thing."

The Flyers' turnaround from the worst team in the NHL last season to conference finalists this year is one of the more improbable transformations in league history. The Flyers, who set a franchise record last year for fewest points, are the first team to reach the conference finals a year after posting the worst record since the Red Wings in 1987.

While Philadelphia's fast start this season had it contending for first place in the East around the All-Star break, its second-half fade nearly cost the team a playoff berth. The Flyers lost 10 straight games in one miserable stretch and didn't clinch their first playoff berth since 2006 until the penultimate game of the season.

Yet here they are in the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 2004 after knocking off top-seeded Montreal in convincing 4-1 fashion.

"It just seems like there's a bigger purpose for us right now," Stevens said. "It seems like we've grown up through these playoffs already."

Philadelphia's win also assured the first all-U.S. Stanley Cup final since 2003.

The Flyers accomplished in the series with Montreal what they failed to do in the first round against Washington: Close out a 3-1 lead as soon as possible, before stretching the series to a Game 7.

"The first series went through my mind a little," Flyers forward R.J. Umberger said. "We knew we didn't want to give them any life. The bounces could have gone their way and it would have been different."

Umberger's stellar series against Montreal is a huge reason why the Flyers, who last won a Stanley Cup in 1975, have a few extra days of rest before the conference finals start this week.

Banished to the fourth line at the start of the postseason, Umberger has been shifted around in different combinations as the Flyers keep winning and he keeps scoring all the clutch goals. He scored two more goals in Philadelphia's 6-4 win over Montreal on Saturday night and ended the series with eight goals.

Umberger's goals set a Flyers record for a five-game series and nearly matched Tim Kerr's record 10 goals in a seven-game series against Pittsburgh in 1989.

"He's such a dynamic player," Flyers center Mike Richards said. "It's nice to see him having the success he's having right now."

Umberger, a Pittsburgh native who turned 26 on Saturday, missed six games toward the end of the season with a sprained left knee and finished with 13 goals and 50 points. He already has nine goals this postseason.

With the Flyers making their postseason push without him, Stevens dropped Umberger to the fourth line - a demotion that lasted all of one game. When Patrick Thoresen was hit in the groin by a puck in Game 1 against Washington and Mike Knuble tore his hamstring in Game 5 against the Capitals, Umberger had another chance and was paired with Scott Upshall on Jeff Carter's line.

No matter where he's played, Umberger has thrived.

To have a chance of beating the Penguins, Philadelphia needs Umberger to maintain his hot streak and goalie Martin Biron to turn away shot after shot, just as he's done in the first two rounds.

"There's no question we're playing our best hockey now," Stevens said. "Our young players have matured, guys have taken ownership of our team and we're more prepared for this than at any other point in the year."


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