April 24, 2012

On to the next one.

It was roughly a year ago when the Philadelphia Flyers beat the Buffalo Sabres in seven games. In theory, this was a good thing; the charge for the Cup had begun anew.

But a little post-series optimism couldn't hide the fact that the Flyers were a flawed team. A late-season collapse carried over into the tougher-than-it-should-be showdown with the Sabres. And, as we all know, the Boston Bruins made them pay in the next round.

But in 2012, the excitement doesn't have to be faked or manufactured. A truly talented team was vanquished in Philadelphia on Sunday afternoon, and the Flyers have all the makings of a legit Stanley Cup contender.

The rookies are shining. The future captain is dominating. Ilya Bryzgalov came up big with 30 saves (just a game later than I'd hoped) and the defense was absolutely tremendous (40 blocked shots).

It got a little scary there, after the Game 4 thrashing and Marc-Andre Fleury's Game 5 goaltending clinic, but that's the best part of going up 3-0 in a seven-game series: It's damn hard for the other team to come back. Even if you're the "best team in the NHL," as many experts anointed Pittsburgh before the playoffs even began, the odds are good that you'll run out of gas.

And so the Penguins did. It was one of the zanier series in recent memory, and up until this weekend, asking whether either team had what it takes to play actual playoff hockey and make a serious Cup run was legitimate.

But Game 6 proved that the Flyers can play a 60-minute hockey game. They can forecheck, they can play defense, they can clear the crease and clog the passing lanes.

Whether they will do those things throughout the playoffs remains up for debate. My guess is yes; I think both teams lulled each other into a wide-open, up-and-back kinda game that neither really wanted to play. Things got out of hand quickly, and it wasn't until Games 5 and 6 that everyone worked out the jitters and settled down into a tighter, smarter style.

Luckily, the Flyers ended up being the survivors. And we learned a few things along the way: Some great comebacks showed that you can't ever count them out, and a solid Bryzgalov performance in the clincher (along with a nice long rest in before the coming series) might quell at least a few goalie-related fears. Bryz will never be perfect -- he probably won't outplay Henrik Lundqvist or Tim Thomas -- but he can do the job. I believe he can, at least.

But no one would turn down a little help from the hockey gods. Most Flyers fans are praying for a Washington Capitals win tomorrow or an Ottawa Senators upset on Thursday (or both) to avoid the vaunted Boston Bruins and New York Rangers in the second round. And, admittedly, the road to the Stanley Cup becomes a hell of a lot smoother without those two teams around.

So let's hope that fortune smiles on Philadelphia and the two biggest remaining threats to Flyers supremacy fall by the wayside. No offense to preferred opponents like the Florida Panthers or the New Jersey Devils, but nobody in Philly wants to be the best by beating the best. We just want the Flyers to win.

And if this series with Pittsburgh proved anything, it's that they can.

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