PITTSBURGH - 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 their first-round series with Buffalo, 8-0. In the '03 Eastern Conference semifinals, it was Ottawa 5, Flyers 1. There was that great run to Game 7 of the 2004 Conference Finals when they lost 2-1 to Tampa Bay, but 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 losses, 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, 1 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 visitor's 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. They'll get better and then you make the adjustments."
Here's the bad news: Pittsburgh is 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 finals.
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," said Flyers coach John Stevens. "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. They're a great team, and they'll be a test for whoever comes out of the West."
The Flyers, said Holmgren, need help in two of the three categories. 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 this one team on the other side of the state.
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 sizable gamble. Because the kind of concussion symptoms that wiped out most of Gagne's season sometimes don't disappear. And because Smith and Hatcher ain't 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 and yesterday's game produced is just as legit, just as real, 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 of Game 7.
That razor's-edge existence separates them from the team that beat them in five games. The Pens are now 12-2 in the postseason, and riding a 16-game home unbeaten streak. They adjust quickly, and their victories are more complete and convincing. The silver lining to yesterday's thud may be that the Flyers see that, too, clearer than they did when this series began 10 days ago.
"Sometimes the lessons that are learned, you have to wait until next year to use," Stevens said. "I thought we had the ability to right the ship and keep moving on and learn lessons and still keep our season alive. But there's no question we need to get better . . . We wanted to get into the playoffs. Now we want to come back in here, compete longer than we did this year." *
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