Flyers expecting serious Stanley Cup run

October 1, 2009 8:31:35 PM PDT
The Flyers won two Stanley Cups before the Phillies won their first title. They celebrated with two parades in downtown Philadelphia, the kind of end-of-season frivolity the Eagles have never felt after a Super Bowl. There is a framed photo of the 1975 parade that hangs prominently outside the Flyers locker room at their practice rink, a daily remembrance of an era when 2 million fans jammed the city streets to party with the famed Broad Street Bullies.

But the picture is in black and white, a disheartening reminder that their heyday as the best team in the NHL was 35 years ago.

The Eagles and Phillies rule Philadelphia these days in popularity and performance. The orange-and-black still sell out their home games and make the Wachovia Center one of the most boisterous and intimidating arenas in the NHL. Yet it also gets pretty quiet in there when the Flyers are eliminated in the playoffs again without hoisting the Stanley Cup.

So here they are this season, hoping another new goalie in Ray Emery and an imported former league MVP in Chris Pronger can be the difference and get the Flyers playing meaningful games in June. "I believe we have the tools to make something special happen here," forward Danny Briere said.

First, they have to get past a powerful Atlantic Division rival - the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Flyers (44-27-11, 99 points) have been eliminated by the Penguins in each of the last two seasons. The Penguins knocked out the Flyers in the Eastern Conference finals in 2007 and eliminated them in the first round last year. Get past the Penguins in the Eastern Conference, and the Flyers might be on track for the Stanley Cup finals.

John Stevens opens his fourth season as Philadelphia's coach on Friday night at Carolina and Saturday at New Jersey. Philadelphia started 0-3-3 last season, which eventually helped cost them home-ice advantage in the first round.

"Not having the start we wanted last year, I think that was a valuable lesson for us," Stevens said. "It's critical we get as many points as possible out of the gate here because we all know how it can impact the standings at the end of the year. I don't think we can have a lot of patience this time of year."

Briere said a more mature Flyers team is better prepared to handle a toughened Eastern Conference.

"It's a matter of us coming together and following the system," Briere said. "That's going to be the focus. If that goes well, we could be the top team. If that doesn't work, we could be near the bottom."

The system includes finding ways to get the puck to their talented goal scorers. They return four players who each scored 30-plus goals last year: Jeff Carter (46), Simon Gagne (34), Scott Hartnell (30) and Mike Richards (30). Briere can be counted on for that many now that he's completely recovered from groin injuries that sidelined him most of last year.

"I know it was good motivation throughout the summer," Briere said. "Right now, I feel great. I feel quick."

Kimmo Timonen and Pronger anchor one of the toughest backlines in the NHL. Pronger, who turns 35 in October, can be a throwback to that Bully style of play and deliver the punishing hits that puts teams on notice around the net.

With Anaheim last season, Pronger was second in the NHL in total ice time (2,183 minutes, 20 seconds) and average per game (26:57). "I think any goalie would like someone like Pronger in front of you," Emery said.

And a defenseman like Pronger will enjoy Emery in net. Emery is the biggest wild card going into this season after playing last season in Russia.

At his best, he led the Ottawa Senators to the Stanley Cup finals and was rewarded with a big contract. At his worst, his erratic and temperamental behavior led to several off-ice incidents and disrupted practices.

He was eventually booted off the Senators and left in the NHL scrap heap.

With the Flyers unhappy with their 1-2 goalie combination of Martin Biron and Antero Niittymaki, they dumped the pair and took a chance on Emery.

Emery understands why Flyers fans believe the team took a huge risk is signing him to a one-year deal. But he assures the die-hards they have nothing to worry about.

"I know I can play, and I'm not going to play if I don't think I'm capable of it," he said. "But it's not like people said, 'Hey, they signed that guy. Great.' There are people that were like, 'What?' There was a lot of mixed reaction. It's not the easiest thing that they did."

It could be the best move, though, if Emery keeps his cool and keeps the Flyers in contention.

A 50-by-50-foot Flyers banner will be affixed outside the Wachovia Center on Friday to kick off the start of the season. The Flyers used to hang banners from their rafters. Emery and Pronger could help them raise one again.

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