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Phil Sheridan: Beneath Flyers' bruising, seeds of hope

PITTSBURGH - There was no mercy, and there will be no parade. The Pittsburgh Penguins ruthlessly ended the Flyers' improbable playoff run and, with it, the latest chance to end Philadelphia's championship drought.

PITTSBURGH - There was no mercy, and there will be no parade.

The Pittsburgh Penguins ruthlessly ended the Flyers' improbable playoff run and, with it, the latest chance to end Philadelphia's championship drought.

This month marks the 25th anniversary of the city's last major professional title, won by the Sixers of Dr. J and Moses Malone in 1983. These Flyers, who finished dead last in the NHL last year, were not expected to contend for the Stanley Cup. But they beat two favored opponents, Washington and Montreal, to get closer to a championship than any city team since the 2004 Eagles went to the Super Bowl.

"Why not us?" the Flyers asked, of each other and of the Fates.

The Penguins of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury have their own business with the Fates, however. They will play for the Cup after a resounding 6-0 victory here.

"We got beat by a team that played better than us," Danny Briere said. "That's the bottom line."

"Our spirit was a little bit broken there," coach John Stevens said of the one-sided contest, the worst performance by his team in 17 playoff games.

When the sting wears off for both the Flyers and their fans, there will be a Cup-silver lining. For Philadelphians, the pain of reaching that 25th anniversary milestone should be slightly offset by the promising era we're in right now.

The Flyers, Sixers and Phillies all made the playoffs in their most recent seasons. All are in position to continue building toward a championship around talented young players.

Mike Richards and Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Thaddeus Young, Jimmy Rollins and Braydon Coburn, Cole Hamels and Jeff Carter, Briere and Andre Iguodala.

There has to be a championship in there somewhere, doesn't there?

That doesn't factor in the Eagles, who have spent much of this decade as serious contenders to win the Super Bowl. If they can regroup to make another run with Donovan McNabb at quarterback, the city will have four teams capable of ending the drought in any given season.

For the Flyers, this postseason was a wildly entertaining growth spurt. They rebounded from a dreadful 2006-07 season, the loss of Simon Gagne, and a 10-game losing streak to clinch a playoff berth on the final weekend of the regular season.

For their trouble, they faced - in order - the No. 3, No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in the Eastern Conference.

They won a Game 7, in overtime, on the road in Washington.

They won four in a row, two of them on hallowed ice in Montreal, to upset the Canadiens.

They were dealt two blows, injuries to Coburn and Kimmo Timonen, that changed the complexion of the conference final series against Pittsburgh. The Pens are very good, no doubt about it, but the Flyers were badly hampered without their two best defensemen.

Timonen gallantly played yesterday in spite of the blood clot in his left foot, but was not himself.

"I've seen better days," Timonen said ruefully afterward, "but it was good enough to be able to play."

Paul Holmgren, who reshaped the team brilliantly in his first off-season as the general manager, now faces a new and welcome challenge. Instead of wondering what moves it might take to become a playoff team, he gets to evaluate and then add to a Cup contender.

"You're always looking to improve," Holmgren said. "We didn't have Kimmo for stretches of this thing. We didn't have Coburn. I'm not making excuses - injuries are part of the game - but they are key players in our lineup. Obviously, we need depth in certain areas. We need to improve our speed through the zone."

Those are issues for the off-season, which arrived suddenly and unwelcomed yesterday.

"We're in this business to win the last game," Holmgren said. "When you don't, it's very painful."

The Flyers haven't won the last game since 1975, the Eagles since 1960, the Phillies since '80, and those Sixers since '83.

There are now a couple of generations of Philadelphians who have never experienced a championship parade. The longer this goes, the more pressure there will be on the four teams to end it. You can't help thinking that pressure has affected the Eagles, especially, as well as the Phillies last year.

One of the charming things about this Flyers team was that there was no such pressure. They played with a spirit and infectious joy throughout those first two series. It wasn't until they looked around and saw just three other teams left standing that the Cup became a realistic goal.

It still is. That's the legacy of this team. These Flyers didn't win the Cup, but they made you feel the Cup - and the parade - are within reach.