SUNRISE, Fla. - The team that had the worst start in franchise history clinched a playoff berth Tuesday night at the BB&T Center.
Captain Claude Giroux, who guaranteed the Flyers would make the playoffs when they had a 1-7 record, scored a pair of goals, sparking a 5-2 victory over lowly Florida and assuring that they will be playing in the postseason after being spectators last year.
"I just believed in this team," Giroux said of his early-season prediction. "Last year, not making the playoffs was unacceptable."
Vinny Lecavalier became the seventh Flyer to reach the 20-goal mark, opening the scoring early in the second period. The Flyers have the most 20-goal scorers in the NHL, and it marked the sixth time in franchise history they have had seven 20-goal scorers.
"We've been through a very tough start, and a lot of people didn't believe in us, but I think we believe in each other in the room," said Lecavalier, who centered the fourth line and set up Tye McGinn's goal, making it 5-2 with 4 minutes, 54 seconds left. "There's a lot of character. We never stopped even when we were 1-7. I still thought we were playing hard, but we weren't really in sync on the ice, and when we started playing better as a team, the results got there."
With the victory, the Flyers remained two points behind the second-place New York Rangers in the Metropolitan Division. The Rangers, who are battling through some key injuries, have two games remaining (Buffalo and Montreal), while the Flyers have three (Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, Carolina).
The Flyers, who are 40-22-9 since their 1-7 start, also remained two points ahead of fourth-place Columbus.
"I told the guys, 'You should be proud of yourself,' " coach Craig Berube said. "They went through a lot."
It seemed as if more fans were cheering for the Flyers than the Panthers. The sparse crowd erupted into chants of "Giroux" and "Let's Go Flyers" after Giroux took a stretch pass from Nick Grossmann and scored from the top of the right circle, ending a five-game stretch without a goal and giving his team a 2-0 lead with 13:31 left in the second.
Giroux beat backup goalie Dan Ellis, who was an emergency starter after Roberto Luongo suffered an undisclosed injury during warm-ups.
About 21/2 minutes later, Giroux converted a slick pass from Mark Streit, one-timing a shot past Ellis from the slot for his team-leading 27th goal - one more than Wayne Simmonds.
Florida cut it to 4-2 with 14:22 remaining in the third period, getting goals from Erik Gudbranson (screen shot from the point) and 19-year-old Jonathan Huberdeau (deflected off Streit).
But the Flyers, who have been awful in the third period recently, held on for their second straight win.
After a listless first period in which they failed to score on a ragged five-on-three power play that lasted 1:40, the Flyers regrouped and scored four second-period goals - two by Giroux - to take command. The period included Sean Couturier's first goal in 18 games.
It was Berube's second milestone win against the Panthers. In his first game after he replaced Peter Laviolette, the Flyers defeated the Panthers, 2-1, on Oct. 8.
After the morning skate, Berube talked about what a "great opportunity" the Flyers would have later in the night. Midway through the first period, however, Berube read his team the riot act during a TV timeout. The Flyers were in the midst of an uninspired first period, and Berube - who is usually stoic behind the bench - was more animated than perhaps any time this season.
Berube undoubtedly had some choice words between the first and second periods, and the Flyers responded in the middle period.
As for the second-place hunt, the Flyers will slip past the Rangers if they go 2-0-1 while New York splits its two remaining games.
"We want to finish as high as possible; obviously home ice would be nice in the first round," said winger Scott Hartnell, aware that the Flyers have lost eight straight at Madison Square Garden since 2011.
"We all know what's at stake and what we have to do here," said Berube, whose team has a difficult game at Tampa Bay on Thursday. "Just trust your system and go out and play hard."