By Joseph Santoliquito
Philadelphia (CBS)—They gathered at center ice and raised their sticks one last time. The Flyers didn’t care to look up at the empty seats that by then dotted the Wells Fargo Center, since their dour, stunned expressions after skating away from the traditional handshake line that concludes every NHL playoff series explained it.
So much was expected after the Flyers upset the Stanley Cup favorite Pittsburgh Penguins in the opening round, with the New Jersey Devils considered somewhat of an easy mark in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
But the Flyers never factored in the Devils’ relentless, aggressive forechecking, and long spells of absolute domination. Nor ageless wonder Martin Brodeur, who turned 40 during the series, showing glimpses of playoffs past. Nor some wacky bounces along the way—like the Devils’ David Clarkson’s go-ahead goal off his stick shaft.
It all translated into a Devils’ 3-1 victory in Game 5 Tuesday night and a 4-1 series closeout for New Jersey, which will now advance to the Eastern Conference finals, most likely against the New York Rangers.
The Flyers saw their season end. And though many may look at it as a disappointment, after the swollen hype that sprouted from beating Pittsburgh, it actually was a very successful year and a tremendous step forward for the Flyers.
Before the season, Flyers’ general manager Paul Holmgren scuttled the previous plan. The Flyers underwent a major facelift by trading established stars Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, getting considerably younger and handing over the team’s reigns to 24-year-old Claude Giroux.
No one knew what to expect.
With Carter and Richards gone, Giroux blossomed this season into one of the NHL’s best players, and a team filled with uncertainty congealed into a future Stanley Cup contender buoyed by its fine blend of veteran and young talent.
Giroux’s absence was obvious in Game 5, serving a one-game suspension for lowering his shoulder and nailing former Flyer Dainius Zubrus out of frustration in Game 4.
But Giroux will probably be handed the captain’s ‘C’ next season, heading a great youthful nucleus of Sean Couturier (who won’t turn 20 until December), James van Riemsdyk (23), Eric Wellwood (22), Wayne Simmonds (23), Jakub Voracek (22), Erik Gustafsson (23), Brayden Schenn (20) and old man rookie Matt Read (25).
“It’s frustrating not to be able to go to a Game 6,” Giroux said. “We’re a good team, it should have been a tighter series and we have to learn from it. I think we were thinking we were going to walk over New Jersey. It’s kind of our fault a little bit. It’s obviously frustrating because we thought we could have done a little more damage than that. This was obviously a different series [than Pittsburgh]. We didn’t play as well. The emotions weren’t as high, and at the same time, we know we’re a better team. That’s what’s so frustrating about it.”
Again, it was the Flyers that started the scoring, when Max Talbot rushed the net and poked the puck by Brodeur. The Devils answered with goals from Bryce Salvador, a knuckleball that deflected off Simmonds’ stick, followed by the wild Clarkson goal.
The Devils’ defenseman was pressuring Flyers’ goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, who attempted to drive the puck somehow through Clarkson. Bryzgalov’s pass hit the shaft of Clarkson’s stick and the puck ricocheted between the unsuspecting Bryzgalov’s legs.
Bryzgalov could only turn his head to see what happened, then slowly look up in obvious disgust with himself.
In fairness to Bryzgalov, it was one of a few flaws he made during the series. If not for him, the Flyers would have been blown out of Games 2, 3 and 4, when he made an average of 32.3 saves. Throughout the series, Bryzgalov didn’t get too much help.
That bore out in the most glaring stat of the series: The Flyers turned the puck over a combined 63 times in the five games to just 21 turnovers for the Devils.
The Flyers’ open style that worked so well against Pittsburgh was curtailed greatly in this series.
“There’s a couple of games that I’ll look back on with disappointment when we didn’t play a better brand of our hockey,” Flyers’ coach Peter Laviolette said. “Our guys were trying to play that style and trying to play that brand, but you have to give New Jersey credit for the way they played defense and the way they forechecked it and kept it from being the game that we wanted. We could never seem to go down that road. We were never able to get on track for what we wanted to do.”
“I think the biggest thing for us was our forechecking,” Devils’ captain Zach Parise said. “We made it really tough for them to get out of the zone. When we were able to get the puck deep and take away the walls, they had problems.”
The Devils’ Ilya Kovalchuk sealed it on a powerplay goal with 15:00 left to play. It came because of a senseless holding penalty on van Riemsdyk, who pulled down Patrik Elias from behind. Four seconds later, Kovalchuk’s blast beat Bryzgalov in the upper left corner of the net, catching the inside of the post. It gave the Devils a commanding 3-1 lead and their first trip to the Eastern Conference finals since 2003.
With about 10:00 left to play, boos began raining down from the Wells Fargo Center rafters. Empty seats began appearing with about three minutes to play.
It was difficult to take—as was the final, long handshake line. There were six rookies in the lineup for the Flyers in Game 5, giving further credence that this season marked a successful transition for what looks like a promising young team.
“I can tell you the group that’s in that room right now is a terrific group of men,” Laviolette said. “They played hard, and it’s a bright future, but right now, it’s still disappointing.”