PITTSBURGH - The Flyers' magical tour of springtime hockey ended yesterday at Mellon Arena as the Penguins eliminated them from the Eastern Conference finals in five games.
It's best to forget how ugly the 6-0 trouncing was. Instead, the Flyers can look forward to what likely will be an exciting team next season.
"Working with this group has been one of the more enjoyable experiences I've had in pro hockey," coach John Stevens said last night. "We've made tremendous strides this year. We've come a long way. We played the No. 1-2-3 seeds in the playoffs, and I thought we did a remarkable job."
The Flyers overachieved under Stevens, a credit to him and his staff as they pulled the team together after a 10-game losing skid in February.
No one expected the Flyers to go far in the playoffs, but they went three rounds. Their resiliency, approach to adversity, and determination to prove others wrong became their signature. In one season, they went from being the worst team in hockey to within three wins of the Stanley Cup Finals.
"We didn't totally gut the team, but the evolution of our younger players . . . they took big steps forward with their games, and I don't think anyone saw that coming," veteran winger Mike Knuble said.
"For us to come out of last year where we were getting killed every game, this has been a tremendous response as a group. . . . We knew we could rebound. But to find ourselves in the conference final, I think that caught a few people off guard."
There's no shame in losing to the Penguins, who advanced to the Finals for the first time since 1992 when they last won the Cup. They have been the class of the East all spring.
"Give Pittsburgh credit," Stevens said. "To me, they were the No. 1 seed, from what I've seen."
The Flyers did not lose this series because of dumb penalties, bad goaltending or poor play. They were soundly beaten by a more skilled club.
"If you look at it that way, it's not a disappointment," forward R.J. Umberger said. "We have a lot of guys on the verge of getting older in experience. Our nucleus is still building. I think we've gotten this organization back to where it should be."
The reality of today's NHL is that no team is ever far from a Stanley Cup run if it has a long-range plan that includes smart spending under the salary cap and productive drafts.
General manager Paul Holmgren has positioned the Flyers for the future, though he will be hard-pressed to re-sign all of his potential free agents. The Flyers could, for instance, lose Jeff Carter to a Group II offer sheet of $5 million or more. Such an offer might cost the club that signs him two first-round picks, plus a second- and a third-round pick. Carter was sensational in the playoffs; the Flyers are tight under the cap with commitments of $49 million for next season.
"We'll sign or match," Holmgren said yesterday. "We're not going to lose Jeff."
Going into the postseason, a burning issue was whether the Flyers had the right goalie. You don't have to be Martin Brodeur to win a Cup if the team around you is committed to defense. Just look at Detroit's Chris Osgood.
Marty Biron showed the Flyers he could raise his game significantly. He didn't lose the Penguins series, though he was ordinary. Against Montreal, he was outstanding.
The series was jeopardized for the Flyers before it began when defenseman Kimmo Timonen went down with a blood clot in his left ankle. It got worse when Braydon Coburn was struck near the left eye with a puck. Just like that, the Flyers' best puck mover (Timonen) and best passer (Coburn) were gone, leaving the breakout up to the likes of Derian Hatcher, Jason Smith and Randy Jones. The Flyers were hard-pressed to challenge Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby head-on. There was no margin for error, and Pittsburgh exploited that, picking apart the Flyers.
"It was a pretty decent season, even though we didn't get to the Stanley Cup Final," Timonen said. "We had a lot of ups and downs and injuries, and we fought through those injuries to make it this far, which was great."
What the Flyers must do this off-season is upgrade the defense. Malkin and Crosby could be in the Atlantic Division for a long time. The Flyers need better talent on the back end to defend against them. Better defense means fewer quality chances on Biron.
Ideally, the Flyers need a mobile defenseman somewhere between a young Coburn and a veteran Timonen. Someone like San Jose's Brian Campbell or Colorado's John-Michael Liles, both of whom will be unrestricted free agents in July. The problem is, the Flyers have little cap room - even with a projected $5 million increase - to sign a major player without cutting salary through trades or buyouts.
Throughout the season, Stevens criticized his team for complacency at the start of games and its tendency to quit playing in the second period. Those problems disappeared down the stretch when every game had playoff implications.
As upsetting as Scottie Upshall's undisciplined penalties can be, his fiery attitude is exactly what the Flyers need.
Whether this team made the playoffs, club president Peter Luukko said, the Flyers intended to review every aspect of their personnel.
Luukko and Holmgren wanted one thing of Stevens: to make the playoffs. Anything else was gravy after last year's dead-last finish. Stevens delivered and likely will get a contract extension.
"To go from last place to the conference final is fantastic," Luukko said. "As much as it hurts today, these guys did a fantastic job. And it's going to be even better in the future with all the players we have. The future is very bright."
The players who make up the club's long-term nucleus - Carter, Mike Richards, Umberger (another potential free agent), Joffrey Lupul, Ryan Parent, Steve Downie and Coburn - are 26 or younger. That's a strong foundation.
"We had guys who took a couple of huge steps forward," Knuble said. The rookie Parent, for instance, was forced into emergency action against Pittsburgh on defense and acquitted himself well.
The Flyers are not that far away. What they must do is strengthen the defense and their players' resolve to play 60 minutes, play with greater discipline, and commit fewer penalties.
"It's a little tough right now to look at the big picture; it's disappointing when it's finally over," center Danny Briere said. "I'm sure when we look back, it's a good step in the right direction for this organization. We got beat by a team that played better than us."
It took the rebuilding Flyers one season to reposition themselves as challengers in the East.
"We showed a lot of character this season," Knuble said.
That's what should be remembered.