WASHINGTON - Nineteen years ago, in a very similar circumstance, the young Flyers coach walked to the podium after his team knocked the Washington Capitals out of the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

It had been a hard year, his first full season as coach. He had followed a huge personality, a winning personality - but this coach was quieter, more workmanlike, less of a showman. The Flyers team had been inconsistent during the season. The fans had been anxious. There wasn't e-mail, not back then, but the patrons were able to communicate their displeasure in other ways. They weren't sure. They weren't sure about the new coach most of all.

The series against the Caps had been difficult. And when it ended, the coach stepped up and began speaking and actually had his voice crack and came near tears - such was the emotion, the relief at getting through.

Nineteen years ago, the coach was Paul Holmgren, now the Flyers' general manager. Last night, there was John Stevens.

This time, the voice was firm, though. The leaping, joyous emotion Stevens showed on the bench after Joffrey Lupul won it, won Game 7 in overtime, was back wherever Stevens stores such things. If you could read the relief on his face, hear it in his voice, it wasn't obvious.

Stevens was just himself - the coach of a team that rose from the depths last season and learned something, learned how to win.

"I'm just happy," Stevens said. "You just love to see a group have some success . . .

"You keep talking about success, and getting to where you want to go. To win a series, it's great to see the excitement in the players and the whole organization, especially after last year."

Last year. Last place. Worst in the National Hockey League. It seems like a long time ago. That isn't to say that this is a world-beating team, or anything like it. But there is a heartbeat. At this point in the development of a team, in the renewal of a franchise, it is all that you can possibly ask.

They won it with fortitude and with good fortune. They gave up two-goal leads like Christmas favors in this series, and they gave up a three-games-to-one advantage in this series, and they got outplayed for long stretches of Game 7 in this series, and they still won this series.

You can pick it apart at your leisure - but the result stands. This group has won something. This group has now done the prerequisite. There is now a foundation. This bunch, in its first go-round, will not be saddled with a collapse.

"We talked to our team this morning," Stevens said. "Basically, the message was, 'It doesn't matter how we got to Game 7, but we're in Game 7.' That's a pretty exciting time for a team and a hockey player. Yeah, know we had a chance to close it out, but the fact of the matter is, we had a Game 7. We had an opportunity to win it. We've shown the ability to be a good team.

"I actually walked to the rink today. I couldn't sleep. I left the hotel about 3 o'clock. It took me about 40 minutes to get here, but I got a chance to think a little bit. I was excited for the opportunity to play in this game.

"The guys were focused and they came in ready to go. Our veteran guys were great. Our young guys played like young veterans."

Stevens doesn't show much, which is what drives some fans crazy. And the team's streakiness this season was maddening for everyone. But you have to give this coach this much: He shows a quiet confidence both to you and me and to his players.

And they all just got through.

"We keep getting up off the mat, that's for sure," he said. "We have some streaks this year of the dubious kind and been able to bounce back from there. We had a stretch of nine games at the end of the year, and not a lot of people thought we could get the points to get in, but we did. Then we're up, 3-1, and pushed to a Game 7 - and we got up off the mat again and were able to win the series.

"It's a resilient group. I still think it's a group that's learned how to win, both old guys and young guys together. We're a relatively new team . . . and you need things like this to really create a bond with your team."

You cannot underestimate the importance of this game to this team - and to this coach. Consider: Mike Keenan was fired after his Flyers blew a 3-1 lead in a series in 1988, and Craig Ramsay didn't survive a slow start the season after his Flyers blew a 3-1 lead to the Devils in 2000. It is the kind of thing that can stigmatize a group and its leader. It just can.

But that's a non-issue now.

And what did they learn?

"There's a lot," Stevens said. "You learned that this team has got the heart we always said they had." *

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