Silver lining isn't enough
TAMPA, Fla. -- The goaltender emerged as a star; the captain established himself as one of the game's best clutch performers; and the team proved it can overcome many obstacles to win.
The Philadelphia Flyers don't care about silver linings, though. The silver they wanted was the Stanley Cup.
The Flyers' remarkable playoff run ended with a loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. It was the 29th straight season that ended without a championship for Philadelphia.
"It's devastating," said captain Keith Primeau, who had an outstanding postseason, willing his team to several wins with his clutch scoring and dominating physical play. "I didn't get it done. That will stay with me a while. It will haunt me."
But getting to the brink of the Cup finals was a significant achievement for the Flyers, who battled numerous injuries throughout the regular season and playoffs.
Primeau and forward Jeremy Roenick missed significant parts of the final three months with concussions, and the defense was depleted in the playoffs. Eric Desjardins, the team's best defenseman, didn't play; Kim Johnsson missed the first three games of the second round; and Marcus Ragnarsson went down in Game 3 against Tampa Bay.
"It's a special group," Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock said. "I don't think any less of them. They've gone to the well far too many times than they should have had to."
For the first time since Ron Hextall's early years, goaltending wasn't an issue for the Flyers in the playoffs. Robert Esche, a first-time playoff starter, was superb, outplaying New Jersey's Martin Brodeur in the first round and Toronto's Ed Belfour in the second. Esche single-handedly kept the Flyers in the final game against the Lightning with several excellent saves.
"He's one of the up-and-coming best goalies in the game," Roenick said.
The disappointment will fade for the Flyers, but not until long after the Lightning and Calgary Flames finish playing for the Cup. The future is uncertain, and several of the high-priced veterans might not return after a new collective bargaining agreement is reached.
"I don't know what's going to happen," Roenick said.
The nucleus of the Flyers -- Primeau, Roenick, John LeClair, Mark Recchi, Tony Amonte and Desjardins -- is players in their 30s. But the Flyers have some younger players to build around, including Esche, Simon Gagne, Michal Handzus, Johnsson and Joni Pitkanen. And, Hitchcock is one of the top coaches in the NHL.
"I don't know what happens to any of these guys, but I wouldn't trade any of them," Esche said.
The team that finished the season was much different from the one that started it. General manager Bob Clarke reshaped the roster with trades for center Alexei Zhamnov, defensemen Vladimir Malakhov, Danny Markov and Mattias Timander, and forward Branko Radivojevic.
Esche didn't even start the year as the No. 1 goalie, backing up Jeff Hackett, who retired because of vertigo.
The Flyers finished 40-21-15 for 101 points, winning the Atlantic Division by one point over New Jersey and earning the third seed in the East. They eliminated the rival Devils in five games in the first round and defeated the Maple Leafs in six games in the second round, before going down to the upstart Lightning.
"This is a team of tremendous character," Hitchcock said. "It has a great leader, an emerging young star in goal and has some good qualities. We extended ourselves to get where we're at."
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press
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