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And So Ends That

June 10, 2010

You’d think that an overtime goal to win the Stanley Cup couldn’t possibly be anticlimactic, and yet that’s how last night’s game six ended.

After the Flyers tied the game late in the third period – and just missed on several good chances to win it in regulation – the Blackhawks won it with a soft goal that pretty much nobody saw go in.  The announcers certainly didn’t and we were left with a bizzare scene where the Blackhawks began to celebrate while everyone else just kind of sat there in confusion.

So the Blackhawks are the 2010 Stanley Cup Champions, and the Flyers have now gone 35 years without hoisting the big trophy. 

It shows just how difficult it is to win a championship.  The Flyers had an incredible run, made a historic comeback, and caught a lot of breaks, and still came up two games short.

Why did they lose?  Two main reasons:

1. While both teams’ top players struggled early on in the series, the Blackhawks star players like Jonathan Toews and Dustin Byfuglien came on as the series progressed, while the Flyers got little out of Jeff Carter and Simon Gagne.

2. Once again, the Flyers were undone by a goalie letting in bad goals.  Michael Leighton played poorly throughout most of the series, and let in some killer goals.  The game winner last night was a shot that absolutely needs to be stopped.

On the other hand, while the Blackhawks Antti Niemi was not great, and he certainly didn’t carry the team to victory, but he made the saves he had to.

Looking ahead, should the Flyers proceed as if they were a team that was only two wins away from the championship?  I think that would be a huge mistake.

The Flyers’ playoff run was a bit fluky.  First, they needed to win a shootout on the final game of the season just to make the playoffs.  And then, they continued to draw teams that they matched up very well against.  Thanks to the Montreal Canadiens upsetting both the top seeded Washington Capitals and the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins, the Flyers got easier matchups than their seed would normally dictate in each round.

And as I’ve said before, in Olympic years, the Stanley Cup playoffs tend to be much less predictable.  There are typically more upsets in an Olympic year than in others.  Can the Flyers count on the same kind of breaks next season?  Probably not.

So what do the Flyers need to do?

They first need to settle their goalie situation.  After the Canadiens series, there was talk of signing Leighton to a long term contract.  But these finals have to make them wonder if he is a Cup-winning caliber goalie, or simply a journeyman who went on a hot streak this season. 

If they don’t think Leighton is the answer, then they need to figure out where their goalie is coming from.  They tried signing Ray Emery before the season, but injuries have put his career in jeopardy.  I’m not sure any free agents are going to be any better than Leighton, and teams rarely trade away championship quality goalies.  Besides, after trading for Chris Pronger last season, the Flyers don’t have much they could offer in a trade.

Backup Brian Boucher played well at times this season, and would probably be good to bring back as a backup next season as well.  It would be foolish to count on him as a starter though.

The playoff showed that they could also use another good defenseman as well.  The top four of Pronger, Kimmo Timmomen, Matt Carle, and Braydon Coburn are very solid.  But the coaches clearly didn’t trust guys like Ryan Parent and Lukas Krajicek, and their playing time decreased dramatically as the playoffs progressed.  The top four had to play longer minutes to compensate, and it is worth wondering if they didn’t wear down a bit because of it.

As for their forwards, they appear to have good depth, yet many of their players are either injury prone or streaky.  Can they count on Simon Gagne or Danny Briere to make it through a season without getting hurt?  Should they expect more than they got out of Scott Hartnell, Claude Giroux, and James Van Riemsdyk? 

If these players can stay healthy and become less volatile in their play, the Flyers could avoid the inconsistencies they showed this past season.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to see how the Flyers can improve themselves greatly.  The salary cap will prevent them from doing much damage in free agency, and they don’t seem to have any tradeable pieces that won’t weaken the team.

So basically, the Flyers have to hope that this year’s run wasn’t a fluke.  They have to hope that Leighton is an answer in goal, and their younger players can develop more consistency.  Or else next year at this time, we’ll be talking about how the Flyers’ Cup drought is at 36 years and counting.

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