Flyers look for long playoffs after short season

The NHL lockout only seemed to drag on such an interminable
length that last season was a distant memory.

The reality is, last April was only nine months ago, not so long
that it’s too hard to remember who won the first-round playoff
series between the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Penguins-Flyers is a rivalry so big, it’s kicking off NBC’s
season coverage Saturday in Philadelphia. It’s an opener worthy of
the spot.

But the commercial, while highlighting stars Sidney Crosby and
Claude Giroux, missed one key part of the showdown: Philadelphia’s
six-game win over the Penguins in the first round of the Eastern
Conference playoffs.

”Claude Giroux and the Flyers have their sights set on revenge
for last season’s playoff loss to Pitt!” the voiceover said.

Ah, not so fast. Yes, the Flyers ended yet another season
without hoisting the Stanley Cup, extending a championship drought
that dates to 1975. But they did knock off the Penguins before they
were eliminated the next round in five games by the eventual
Eastern Conference-champion New Jersey Devils.

They’ll likely have to get by the Penguins and Devils again –
and the Rangers, for that matter – if they want to reach the finals
for the first time in three years. Led by Giroux, named team
captain this week, and a roster that returns mostly intact, the
Flyers (47-26-9, 103 points) believe they have the talent to make
another deep run in the postseason.

In fact, when owner Ed Snider was asked this week if he had any
area of concern entering this season, he was firm in his
assessment: ”No.”

Even the die-hard fans, who stake out bleacher seats at training
camp, may not agree with the founder, though.

With Chris Pronger unlikely to ever play again following
multiple concussions and Matt Carle gone via free agency, the
Flyers’ blue line took a big hit. Andrej Meszaros (right Achilles’
tendon) isn’t ready to go and there’s no telling if the 37-year-old
Kimmo Timonen, coming off back surgery, can hold up in a short
season.

Erik Gustafsson (ankle) and Marc-Andre Bourdon (concussion) are
also hurting. The Flyers hope Bruno Gervais and Kurtis Foster can
do more than add some depth to a defense that clearly is the weak
link in the Flyers’ chase for the Cup.

Snider counted on the defense to support goalie Ilya
Bryzgalov.

”I really believe that we’ll tighten up a little bit to help
him out,” he said. ”I think he’s a darn good goalie.”

Bryzgalov was all over the map, with his play and personality,
in his first season in Philadelphia. He never quite warmed to
hockey-mad Philadelphia, and even his own teammates were often left
wondering what the Russian was really all about.

He had trouble adjusting to the increased scrutiny from media
and fans, and even a new style of play in front of him. Bryzgalov
had a sensational March with three straight shutouts, and he set a
Flyers record with a shutout streak of 249 minutes, 43 seconds. His
success just failed to carry over into May.

In the postseason, Bryzgalov had a 3.46 goals-against average.
Bryzgalov, who played in Russia during the lockout, said he now
understands the expectations that come with playing in
Philadelphia. He said he can deal with the fans and media and still
be a top-flight goalie capable of playing 40 games. Coach Peter
Laviolette, entering his fourth season, said he would ride
Bryzgalov hard in the short season.

Bryz says, bring it on.

”I just have to worry about one thing,” he said, ”how to help
the team win games. That’s it.”

Bryzgalov poked fun at Scott Hartnell’s mangy curls in his first
week back and told stories of his offseason trip to a cosmonaut
training center over the lockout. General manager Paul Holmgren
warned Bryzgalov at the end of last season that playing hockey in
Philly is ”not Comedy Central.” But if a happy Bryz means a
successful Bryz, the Flyers will surely put up with his quirky
style.

If wins fail to come as often as the one-liners, perhaps Giroux
can keep him in line. Only 25, Giroux was named the 19th captain in
team history this week, a worthy honor for a player Laviolette
dubbed, ”best in the world” last season.

He had 28 goals and 93 points last season, the most points by a
Flyer since Eric Lindros had 93 in 1998-99, and one shift that
skyrocketed his popularity in Philadelphia.

In the Game 6 clincher against Pittsburgh, Giroux told
Laviolette to start him, then flattened Crosby only 5 seconds into
the game. He later scored his sixth goal of the series and led a
Flyers’ charge into the second round.

He can’t wait to line up against the Pens on Saturday.

”It’s going to be real easy to get up for that game,” he said.
”Just thinking about it gets me excited.”

The Flyers won’t have Danny Briere (wrist) for the opener and
they don’t know if Hartnell can repeat his All-Star scoring form.
They lost out on free-agent stars Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, and
Jaromir Jagr bolted for Dallas. They also traded one-time franchise
cornerstone James van Riemsdyk.

Some big losses, but not enough to spoil the offensive chemistry
they developed last season, something Laviolette noticed on the
first day of camp.

”They came out the first day, not seeing each other, not
skating together, and it was like they didn’t miss a beat out
there,” he said.

Maybe that familiarity can lead to an unfamiliar sight around
the city – a championship parade.

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Follow Dan Gelston at www.twitter.com/APGelston