As unlikely as the Flyers' run to the Stanley Cup finals was, getting back will be more difficult. At least that's what history says.
Perhaps the bounces start going the other way or the frustration of getting so close leads to a bottle-of-cheap-wine hangover, but teams that almost win the championship one season rarely get right back into striking position the next.
Flyers coach Peter Laviolette knows the challenge, but thinks his club can overcome it.
"A lot of it has to do with the parity in the league, not necessarily a Cup hangover," he said yesterday. "But I think our guys will be pretty motivated. We got pretty close. We're a young group and I think we have a good hockey team. I think if we come into camp in good shape and we have a good training camp, there's no reason why we can't come out and find success through the course of the regular season."
That was the problem with this most recent season, Laviolette said. The Flyers started a slump in late November that led to John Stevens' firing. The 3-13-1 stretch dropped them almost to the bottom of the conference and made every night thereafter virtually part of the stretch run to the playoffs.
"Every game was important. Every game was a must-win," said Laviolette, who was hired on Dec. 4. "When you are in 14th place in the conference and 29th place overall, you can't afford to try different things or experiment with line combinations. We had to win every game. It came down to the last game of the year, so there wasn't really any wiggle room."
Laviolette and the Flyers still are licking the wounds they gathered after a most unlikely run at winning the franchise's first Stanley Cup in 35 years. They came up two wins short.
When they begin Year 36 A.C. with training camp in September, the Flyers will try to reverse a disturbing hex on the Cup loser. In the last 40-plus years, just two teams have returned to win the championship. The Penguins did it last year, Edmonton did it in 1984 and that's it for the expansion era. Those teams had Sidney Crosby and Wayne Gretzky, respectively. They also knew who their goaltenders were going to be.
The Flyers' No. 1 goalie might not even be on their roster right now. Michael Leighton is an unrestricted free agent coming off a disappointing final series against Chicago. Brian Boucher is a backup at this stage of his career. Johan Backlund, 29 in July, has as many wins in the NHL (zero) as former wrestling star Bob Backlund.
While saying that "Michael has given himself every opportunity to be considered a No. 1," Laviolette pointed out that general manager Paul Holmgren makes the personnel decisions. Of his goaltenders, Holmgren said the other day only that, "We're going through a careful evaluation process."
Laviolette also is in evaluation mode. Specifically, he wants to evaluate whether his wife, Kristen, and their three kids still recognize him. They've been living at their home outside Sarasota, Fla., while Dad led the Philadelphia region on an unforgettable ride these last several months. Laviolette's primary goal - even before figuring out who his fifth and sixth defensemen will be - is to get a house in this area before the kids start school in September.
Whether the Flyers get back to the finals is a question for another day. Laviolette, surely like everybody else who makes a living wearing orange and black, is slowly coming to grips with a season that ended so abruptly.
Look at the bright side, fellas, next season's schedule is due out a week from today.
"You wake up, you still have that empty feeling," he said. "You were just in this march toward the greatest trophy in the world. You're staring down at this Stanley Cup run and you're hoping to get a couple more wins and it doesn't happen, and you wake up and there's a lot of disappointment there and an emptiness. There's not much you can do to make that go away."
Add Ville Leino (hip) and Dan Carcillo (sports hernia) to the list of Flyers needing offseason surgery. Both will be ready for training camp, Paul Holmgren said . . . In early March, the Flyers contacted Peter Forsberg about possibly returning to the injury-saddled team, Forsberg told the Swedish newspaper Expressen. Forsberg declined, saying he was out of NHL shape. The timing of the contact would have made Forsberg, 36, ineligible for the playoffs . . .
Peter Laviolette indicated that this was an important summer for young defensemen Ryan Parent and Oskars Bartulis. The pair, along with pending free agent Lukas Krajicek, failed to give the Flyers much reliable depth in the postseason. On a related matter, Laviolette said he would love to cut Chris Pronger's regular-season minutes to the 20-to-25-minute range. Pronger averaged 25:56, second in the league to Chicago's Duncan Keith (age 26). Though the 25:56 is actually a career low for Pronger, it is still a ton for a guy who hasn't missed a game in two seasons and turns 36 in October . . .