The Penguins were just that much better
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Say this about the Flyers this decade:
When they get eliminated from the postseason, man do they get eliminated.
In 2001, they lost Game 6 of a first-round series with Buffalo, 6-0. In the '03 Eastern Conference semifinals, it was Ottawa 5, Flyers 1. There was that great run to Game 7 of the 2004 Conference final when they lost, 2-1, to Tampa Bay, then came the lockout, and in '06, Buffalo again clobbered them in a first-round Game 6, 7-1.
Few of this year's Flyers were around for any of those, even the last one. And nothing -- even a game so one-sided that fans of the winning team chanted "Boring" early in the second period -- should obfuscate what the Flyers accomplished this postseason, one year removed from setting a club record for futility.
"What's good about our core here is that we've got a number of players who next year are going to be better," Peter Luukko, the Flyers' president, said outside the dressing room after yesterday's 6-0 loss to the Penguins ended his team's playoff run. "This isn't a veteran team that was just put together to try and win it. This is a group that's going to grow together, even including guys like Kimmo Timonen and Scottie Hartnell. This is their first experience going this far. That's the good news for us, we're going forward."
Here's the bad news: The Penguins are just as young, maybe even younger, with, in the words of Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren, "the two best young guys under contract" for years to come.
That would be Sidney Crosby, 20, and Evgeni Malkin, 21. There's also Jordan Staal, 19, and a group of other potential stars in the making. They, too, are going forward, to their first Stanley Cup final.
They're younger than the Flyers' core. They're likely to stay around just as long.
"They've got the three ingredients, in my opinion, that you need in terms of a team," Flyers coach John Stevens said. "They're solid in every position. Goalie is playing great, obviously. Back end has experience. They've got big guys that are puck movers and big guys that are stay-at-home, and they've got great depth up front."
The Flyers, said Holmgren, need help in two of the three. Ironically, after Martin Biron's worst game of these playoffs, goalie is not one of them. "We need more depth in certain areas," Holmgren said. "I think we need to improve our team speed, too. I don't think we're slow. But we need to get faster."
Not just because of Pittsburgh, but because of Montreal and even up-and-coming Washington. The Flyers expressed some consolation pride after yesterday that they had faced the one, two and three Eastern Conference seeds in these playoffs, but what should not be lost in that is how few points separated one through eight this year. Three seasons removed from the lockout, the talent seems to have evened out in the East -- with the exception of the Penguins.
When healthy as they are now, the Penguins are a spectacle. Maybe the Flyers, with a healthy Simon Gagne and a healthier back end -- Holmgren admitted captain Jason Smith played with two ripped-up shoulders and said he and Derian Hatcher "brought toughness to a new level in my mind" this postseason -- are closer in talent than this series suggested.
But if you're counting on all or any of those guys to move forward next season, it's a gamble. Because the kind of concussion symptoms that wiped out most of Gagne's season sometimes don't disappear. And because Smith and Hatcher are not getting younger.
So where does that leave you? With hope, for sure. Holmgren has earned that, with how quickly he has built what is here, with how adept he has been in obtaining the right pieces.
But the uneasiness this series produced is just as legit, especially when you consider the bumpy ride that finally ended yesterday. They blew late two-goal leads twice in these playoffs, let Washington climb back from a 3-1 hole before edging them in overtime.
That razor's edge existence separates them from the team that beat them in five games. The Penguins are 12-2 in the postseason and riding a 15-game home unbeaten streak. They adjust quickly, and their victories are more complete and convincing.
The silver lining to yesterday's thud might be that the Flyers see that too, clearer than they did when this series began 10 days ago.
First Published May 19, 2008 12:00 am