In early December the Flyers had lost 10 straight and fallen to the bottom of the Metropolitan Division. Only two NHL teams had a worse record.
That gives Saturday’s accomplishment some needed perspective.
A little over four months after they became an NHL laughingstock, the Flyers earned a berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
No joke. They clinched a playoff spot with a Claude Giroux-orchestrated 5-0 wipeout of the New York Rangers.
“We always had the goal to be in and fight for our right for the Cup,” goalie Brian Elliott said after his easy 17-save shutout.
To get there, they had to overcome obstacles. Lots of obstacles.
There was the 10-game losing streak that stretched into early December. There was the early-March nosedive, when they dropped seven of eight, which coincided with a period in which they lost their two top goalies for most of the season’s last two months.
Through it all, they showed remarkable resilience.
“We had some struggles, but we knew we weren’t playing bad hockey at that point,” Elliott said of the early-season swoon. “We just had to work a little bit harder, work a little smarter, and the bounces would come our way. It did that, and we needed everybody down the stretch to make it to this point. That’s what I’m proud of this team for.”
Now that they have reached their destination thanks to Saturday’s win, they are a year ahead of schedule and can play relaxed in the playoffs because they are playing with house money.
In other words, they will be a dangerous team.
Their veterans — led by Giroux, who will get my MVP vote because of a 102-point season, the way he helped Sean Couturier and Travis Konecny have career seasons, and the way he brought this team together after its 10-game skid — and their young players complement each other like Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence.
That’s why they entered Saturday night with the NHL’s fourth-best record since Dec. 4.
“Last year, it was very disappointing not to make the playoffs,” said defenseman Ivan Provorov, who started Saturday’s rout with a first-period goal. “We needed to play better all year, and that’s what we did this year. We stuck together through the troubles in late November and played as a team, and that’s why we’re here in the playoffs.”
The Flyers were 0-5-5 during their losing skid, one that featured many third-period breakdowns.
“Some games, we didn’t play as bad as it sounds. But 10 losses is what it is,” Provorov said. “We stuck with it and played for each other, and it definitely feels great to be in the playoffs.”
Giroux, who had his first regular-season career hat trick Saturday, held some team meetings and kept the team together during the losing streak. The Flyers, he said, were “playing the right way. We were playing as a team and just couldn’t find a way to get it done. … We were right there and we kept pressing … and nobody was pointing fingers and everybody was focusing on their jobs.”
“I don’t think we ever didn’t believe in ourselves,” Couturier said. “We knew we had to turn it on, and we did. No one panicked. No one blamed anybody and I think it kind of shows the kind of team atmosphere we have around here. It made us better going through that stretch, and down the road it made us a better team.”
Coach Dave Hakstol said the “biggest sense of pride for me is how good of a team these guys are inside of the dressing room, and they carry that everywhere with them. It’s one thing to say it back in November or December; it’s another thing for these guys to go out and prove it over the long haul. I think they’ve done that through the regular season.”
The transformation – from bottom-feeder to playoff team – was accomplished after four-plus months of (mostly) impressive hockey. Yes, there were some losses to also-rans along the way, but there were also victories over elite teams like Washington, Tampa Bay, Toronto, Vegas, and Boston. They had a 34-15-7 record during those four months despite spending nearly half that time using, in effect, their Nos. 3 and 4 goalies because of injuries.
“We’re proud of what we did,” Couturier said.
They should be.