An inside look at one team's push to the playoffs
PHILADELPHIA -- Trying to figure out what it's like to be in the middle of a life-and-death playoff push is like stepping into the middle of an animated conversation. You're not quite sure when the conversation started, you're not sure when it will end or how, but it sure is fun listening in.
And so it was over Easter weekend in Philadelphia as the Flyers continued their desperate bid to hang on to a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Before the Flyers take the ice at Wachovia Center for a final practice in preparation for their Friday -- and we will refrain from introducing the tired descriptors "pivotal" or "crucial" -- tilt here against the New York Rangers, it is team picture time.
The picture will tell less of a story than the machinations involved in getting the people in it together. Simon Gagne is there in uniform, even though his season is over thanks to recurring concussion problems. Derian Hatcher has to be virtually carried out to the bleachers and chairs set up at center ice thanks to his fractured tibia. R.J. Umberger is there, too, but that's as close as he'll get to action for some time with a sprained MCL.
The Flyers represent an interesting dynamic as the regular season winds down. You don't know whether to praise them, pity them or throw them under the bus.
Last season, they were playing out the string, wrapping up a franchise-worst finish -- dead last in the NHL. But a few short weeks ago, they were in first place in the Atlantic Division with designs on top spot in the Eastern Conference. Now? With eight games to go, the battered Flyers are trying to look out the front windshield, but can't help but look in the rearview mirror knowing Buffalo, Washington, Florida and even Toronto are closer than they appear.
"Try living it," Mike Knuble quips when it's suggested the season has been a bit of a roller coaster.
The night before, Knuble was watching hockey with his 7-year-old son and flipping between games. Washington was losing to Chicago (that's good), Buffalo was getting thumped by Tampa Bay (good, good) and the Rangers were losing late to New Jersey (good again).
By the time Knuble came back from putting his kids to bed, the Rangers were en route to a shootout victory over the Devils and the Sabres had erased a 4-1 deficit to cruise to a victory over Tampa.
"I thought it was a mistake," Knuble said.
The 35-year-old Knuble has seen the best and worst at this time of year. He was a young pup when he first broke into the NHL with Detroit and saw the Red Wings win back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1997 and 1998. He then spent time with the Rangers and Bruins before landing in Philly after the lockout.
He will have none of the "but look at where this team was a year ago" talk.
"This year, it's been about squandering opportunities," he said. "You think about the opportunities that you've left behind. But, we're still where we are."
Where the Flyers are can best be described as precarious, especially given that they went 10 games without a victory in February and have one win in their past five games, but they nonetheless control their destiny.
The Flyers are having their game-day skate at their practice facility in Voorhees, N.J., so the Rangers hit the Wachovia Center ice early. The Rangers represent the opposite side of this playoff-push coin.
Where the Flyers have stumbled, the Rangers have put aside early-season woes to re-establish themselves as an Eastern Conference force.
They have clinched nothing -- as of Friday afternoon, no team in the conference had secured a playoff berth with the end of the regular season just over two weeks away -- but the Rangers are looking ahead with an eye on a division title and a top playoff seed. With eight games to play, the sixth-place Rangers are just five points out of the conference lead.
"It's a very dynamic schedule. It's a very dynamic league," said Rangers coach Tom Renney, who admits to flicking from game to game on off nights, if only briefly.
Most of the players have headed back to the hotel when netminder Henrik Lundqvist comes off the ice. Paul Mara, Jason Strudwick and Petr Prucha are still churning around the rink. None will be in the lineup that night. In the dressing room, netminding coach Benoit Allaire gives Lundqvist a friendly tap on the pads.
Although Lundqvist has played a significant role in the team's turnaround -- he is 10-2-2 with one no-decision in his past 15 appearances -- he won't be playing tonight as Stephen Valiquette will get a chance to continue his mastery over the Flyers.
Lundqvist admitted there are days when he finds himself wondering what will happen and whom the Rangers might play.
"You have days when you think about what's coming up. You definitely get excited," he said. "You definitely have moments when you see yourself playing in the playoffs and that makes you more excited.
"You can feel that something big is coming close."
Daniel Briere's three boys -- all carbon copies of their dad right down to the No. 48 Flyers jerseys they're all sporting -- huddle in a corner of the Flyers dressing room and watch as reporters surround their father to ask him about his two-goal performance in a wild and woolly 4-3 shootout victory over the Rangers. As the scrum continues, Cameron, the youngest at 6 and sporting a nice Mohawk courtesy of his mom, sneaks out to give netminder Martin Biron a hand slap as the Flyers netminder heads out.
There is a jovial mood in the locker room, complete with what appears to be a horde of players' children in attendance, illustrating the fine line that separates hope from despair.
After the Flyers built a 2-0 lead through a mostly desultory two-plus periods, Biron allowed three goals on nine shots in the third, including a bit of a whiff on a Marek Malik wrist shot, to make the game wildly exciting.
Even after Briere scored his second of the night with less than four minutes to go to restore a 3-2 lead, Biron could not close the door and Jaromir Jagr scored after a stretch in which the Flyers looked like orange pylons in their own zone. But in the shootout, Biron forced Brendan Shanahan to miss the net on a backhand and stoned shootout specialist Nigel Dawes to seal the victory.
"I know it's not the way you want to finish a hockey game," Flyers coach John Stevens said. "You want to hold the lead."
So, there are low fives and a feeling of not just escaping what would have been a crippling loss, but maybe turning some sort of corner.
Meanwhile, in a hallway, Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen is standing in dress clothes minus a sock and shoe on a tender right foot. He missed part of the win over the Rangers, but is expected back in the lineup for Sunday's game against the Islanders.
The Rangers are gone, hoping Scott Gomez's "upper-body injury" sustained during Friday's game isn't all that serious.
The Flyers, meanwhile, have canceled a regularly scheduled practice. Instead, players work out and take care of their various bumps and bruises. Near the team's shower area, there is a board showing the updated NHL standings. This morning, the Flyers find themselves in seventh place, one point ahead of No. 8 Boston. Below is a notice that today is drug-testing day.
"Don't Pee Until Your Test," a note instructs.
Again, there are kids everywhere, many pulling on gear and heading to the ice. Out goes GM Paul Holmgren and his daughter for a little shinny.
Timonen walks with both shoes on -- a good sign for Sunday's matchup. Stevens stops to chat with him in the hallway.
There has been a significant amount of discussion about whether Stevens will have a job if the Flyers don't make the playoffs. It seems patently unfair given the team finished with a franchise-worst 56 points last season, when Stevens took over for Ken Hitchcock early in the campaign. The Flyers have already eclipsed that mark by 28 points, but the team's recent losing streak has eroded some of the confidence in Stevens, at least in the arena of public perception.
Stevens, a career minor league defenseman, coached the Flyers' AHL affiliate for six seasons and won a Calder Cup. Quiet and cautious -- at least in his dealings with the media -- Stevens is a stark contrast from Hitchcock, one of the game's great raconteurs. It isn't a knock against Stevens, but the comparisons are inevitable in a city that has not seen a Stanley Cup parade since 1975.
"It kind of goes with the territory," he told ESPN.com. "It doesn't change what I do. It takes time to build something."
The coach pointed to Friday's game. Some would see blowing a two-goal lead in the third to force a shootout as a failure, but Stevens said he was impressed with how his team didn't crack.
"There were a lot of positives," he said. "And there's been a lot of positives in our season."
But will that be enough for Stevens to keep his job?
"It's the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown" plays on the scoreboard over center ice as fans slowly make their way into the Wachovia Center.
Not only is it a holiday, but it's a game against the New York Islanders, a team that has slipped beneath the playoff surface in recent weeks after hanging in the race far longer than observers had expected. There is little of the buzz that preceded Friday's game versus the Rangers.
While the Flyers are desperate to display some consistency, this is a game that has "booby trap" written all over it. They're expected to win, yet, if they lose, it would undo all of the good done in their shootout win Friday. The injury-depleted Islanders, however, are coming off a surprising 3-1 win over division-rival New Jersey and cannot be overlooked.
The Flyers handle the Islanders like a playoff-bound team should, scoring three times on the power play and cruising to a 4-1 victory.
Beyond the two points that put the Flyers back into seventh place with a one-point edge over Boston, the game reveals a couple of significant signposts.
Biron does not allow the soft goal that has been a disconcerting part of his repertoire this season; he makes a number of key stops, including a dandy glove save off Bryan Berard on an Islanders power play. In the third, Biron denies Josef Vasicek in close, prompting a short chorus of "Marty, Marty, Marty" from the Wachovia faithful.
Biron said he has heard his name chanted in Philadelphia before, but always derisively when he was wearing an opposing jersey. Tonight, he said, the chanting left him a little speechless.
The slender netminder wears what appears to be 10 pounds of clear plastic tape wrapped around his ankles and legs. After the game, as Biron vigorously unwraps the tape, Briere looks up from his scrum.
After scoring again and adding two assists, all on the power play, Briere grins as he asks Biron to tone it down. "We can't hear ourselves think," he said.
The tape tearing only grows louder as Biron tries to annoy his good friend.
Briere's boys are again by his side as he addresses reporters. Cameron is sans Mohawk and reaches to give his dad a big hug as he answers questions. After an emotional win against the Rangers and a big road trip coming up, Briere admitted he was worried there might be a letdown versus the Isles.
Another positive in the Islanders game was Braydon Coburn scoring a power-play goal to give the Flyers a 2-0 lead late in the second period. That it was Coburn scoring reaffirms that he looms as a key figure for the Flyers this spring. With Hatcher out at least through part of the first round and maybe for the rest of the season, Coburn will have to shoulder an even greater load in terms of ice time and responsibility.
The talk has already turned to the importance of this week's three-game road trip that will see the Flyers in New York, New Jersey and Long Island.
"No question these points this weekend we head on the road are important," Stevens said. "[But] the pressure doesn't go away. The pack's still there."
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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