When they acquired blue-line ace Chris Pronger last summer, some felt it made the Philadelphia Flyers instant Stanley Cup contenders.
It did, but only after a wild season that saw them fall near the bottom of the NHL Eastern Conference, replace coach John Stevens with Peter Laviolette, and only make the playoffs with a shootout win in their final game of the regular season.
Now, after becoming only the third team in history to erase a 3-0 series deficit against Boston in the conference semifinals, they are four wins away from the Cup as they take on the Chicago Blackhawks in the final.
''We had a tough year—a coaching change, having to get used to a new system and after that, some injuries that we had,'' said forward Simon Gagne. ''We had to battle through that.
''Even in the playoffs we lost some key guys and were able to get through it. That just shows the character that we have and the group that we have here. That's why we're here. We've got something special going on right now.''
Here's a look at the Flyers:
The Flyers took a chance on repatriating Ray Emery from the KHL as their No. 1 goalie, but after his season ended with an injury, it became a revolving door. But Brian Boucher got the job done early in the playoffs, and when he went down, 29-year-old journeyman Michael Leighton excelled, closing out Boston and then posting three shutouts against Montreal in the conference final. Leighton's gaudy post-season numbers are 6-1, a 1.45 goals-against average and a .948 save percentage. How long that can last, especially against Chicago's firepower, is question No. 1 for the final.
Pronger has been dominant in the playoffs, leading the league with 28:48 of ice time per game, but the 35-year-old will likely be forced to skate more and use more energy containing Chicago's attack. The Flyers use only four defencemen regularly—Kimmo Timmonen (26:35 of ice time), Matt Carle (25:25) and Braydon Coburn (24:23), but they are a quality foursome to rival Chicago's best. Ryan Parent and Lucas Krajicek hardly play. But if the top four are overworked, or if one is injured, lack of depth may become a problem.
Laviolette must be pleased to go into the final three hot lines. The top unit with centre Mike Richards has Gagne, who has seven goals in nine games since returning from a toe injury, and Jeff Carter, who scored twice in his second game off an injury to close out Montreal. Daniel Briere has scored regularly at centre on the second line with Scott Hartnell and James van Riemsdyk, while centre Claude Giroux and winger Ville Leino have both been potting goals on the third trio with grinder Arron Asham. Richards, second only to Chicago's Jonathan Toews in playoff scoring, is also a threat to get one short handed, as he did against Montreal. They are not the quickest group, but they are big, they finish checks and have a nose for the net. The fourth unit centred by faceoff ace Blair Betts has Darroll Powe and tough Ian Laperriere on the wings.
Big things were predicted for the Flyers this season, but they struggled under John Stevens and he was replaced by veteran Peter Laviolette on Dec. 4. Laviolette spent parts of five seasons as head coach in Carolina, taking the Hurricanes to a Stanley Cup in 2006. A strong technical coach, he opted to beat Montreal at their own defensive game. He also showed he's not afraid to make tough decisions when he took popular winger Dan Carcillo out of the lineup for the final two games of the conference final.
The Flyers went into the playoffs with a strong power play and it continued into the playoffs, where they have scored on 20.7 per cent of their chances. Although anchored by Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen on the points, it mostly succeeds with strong play around the net by their big forwards. The penalty kill was a question mark entering the post-season, but they held Montreal to 1-for-22, a major factor in defeating one of the NHL's top teams with the man advantage. Theyrank second in the playoffs to Boston with an 87 per cent kill rate. And with Mike Richards leading the PK, they are always a threat for a short-handed goal.