PHILADELPHIA - The Philadelphia Flyers' pre-season was one extended celebration of their glory days.
They held emotional tributes to their soon-to-be demolished former arena, the Spectrum. Former captains Bob Clarke and Keith Primeau returned. So did members of the 1974 and 1975 Stanley Cup winning teams. The championship banners were raised one final time to the Spectrum rafters, while the old Flyers reminisced about beating the Soviet Red Army team. For a few days, it all seemed like old times in South Philly.
This year's Flyers would love to be remembered so fondly.
Until then, the agonizing title drought is at 33 years and counting since those back-to-back parades down Broad Street in '74 and '75.
The Flyers (42-29-11) have the talent to contend for that coveted Cup.
"Last year was about re-energizing the franchise," said forward Mike Knuble. "This year is about improving on that and taking the next step."
Unlike last summer, when the Flyers made a large splash in free agency, general manager Paul Holmgren was quiet in his tinkering with the roster: no major signings, no blockbuster trades, no buzz. About the only major moves came when they lost forward R.J. Umberger and named Mike Richards the 17th captain in team history.
But Holmgren didn't have to reshape the roster to mould the Flyers into contenders. Danny Briere, Martin Biron, Kimmo Timonen and Jeff Carter are established, settled and entering their prime under third-year coach John Stevens.
The team's five-game elimination in the Eastern Conference final a year after they posted the worst record in the NHL left the Flyers wanting more.
"We want to carry some momentum from last year, but on the same hand, you look at teams that have gone deep in the playoffs in recent years and they haven't been able to bounce back," said Flyers forward Joffrey Lupul. "That's something that should be in the back of our minds. Last year is over. It's a new start for everyone."
Stevens was on the hot seat last season when a 10-game losing streak nearly bumped Philadelphia out of the playoffs. But a strong finish earned the Flyers the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference, and they vanquished No. 3 seed Washington and top-seeded Montreal before falling to the Penguins in the conference final.
The Flyers were the first team since the Red Wings in 1987 to reach the conference final a year after posting the league's worst record.
"It's up to us to not let down," Knuble said. "We know inconsistency was a big battle we had last year. We had a lot of success in the playoffs. This year there won't be a 10-game losing streak. That would be way more unacceptable."
The Flyers' most notable pickup might be a player who never left the franchise: Simon Gagne. Gagne scored seven goals in only 25 games last season because of lingering affects from a concussion. The forward said he's clear of all symptoms and is ready to play in Saturday's opener against the New York Rangers.
Should Gagne be able to rediscover his 40-goal touch, the Flyers would be in outstanding shape. Richards scored 28 goals and had a team-high 75 points. Briere had 72 points in an uneven first season with the Flyers, then was simply spectacular in the playoffs. Knuble and Carter each scored 29 goals.
Gagne-Richards-Briere could arguably be the top first line in the Eastern Conference.
The big surprise on the roster is 18-year-old Luca Sbisa - the Flyers' first-round pick in June. The defenceman impressed enough in training camp to earn a spot on the opening night roster without playing a game in the minor leagues.
"You've seen the intensity level go up the last few days of practice," Stevens said on Friday. "I don't know if I have nerves, but we do get engulfed in preparation. We've been talking to everyone as individuals the last couple days, so I don't think we've had time to be nervous."