Anything less than the conference finals will be a disappointment this season for the Philadelphia Flyers.
After getting out of the first round of the playoffs just once in the last four seasons, the Flyers hope to move to another level as they open their season against the Buffalo Sabres at the Wachovia Center.
The Flyers, who last won the Stanley Cup in 1975, beat Toronto in the first round of last year’s playoffs before losing in six games to Ottawa. Philadelphia has been ousted in the first round in three of the last four seasons after reaching the conference finals in 1998-99.
“We’re one of the teams that has a real chance to get better,” Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock said. “We look like an emerging club. But, there’s a real gear out there that New Jersey set.”
The Flyers finished last season with 107 points, one behind the Stanley Cup champion Devils and six fewer than Ottawa, which led the NHL.
“Until somebody knocks Jersey off that pulpit, it’s going to be everybody chasing them,” Hitchcock said. “But we feel we’ve gotten better. We feel like from 12 months ago at this time we’re a much better hockey club starting the year.”
Philadelphia traded goalie Roman Cechmanek to Los Angeles in May after his meltdown in last season’s playoffs. Jeff Hackett, who signed a two-year deal, will replace Cechmanek after going 15-17-2 with a 2.86 goals-against average and a .911 save percentage in 36 games for Montreal and Boston last season.
“We hope we get a consistent, strong performance every game during the season and the playoffs. That’s the reputation Hack has,” Hitchcock said.
However, left wing John LeClair will start the season on the sidelines because of a broken left foot. He is expected to miss two to four weeks.
LeClair, a five-time All-Star and three-time 50-goal scorer, was hit by a puck Sunday during a practice in West Point, N.Y., team physician Dr. Peter DeLuca said.
The Sabres overcame ownership issues and bankruptcy in the offseason and are hoping to get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2001.
Under the new leadership of owner B. Thomas Golisano and managing partner Larry Quinn, coach Lindy Ruff was given a new three-year contract over the summer, but with one caveat—make the playoffs, or else.
Buffalo finished in last place in the Northeast Division last season with 72 points, the fewest since it had 64 in 1986-87.
Drury had 23 goals and 23 assists for Calgary last season, and Delmore led all NHL defensemen last season with 14 power-play goals.
“Chris is just a great all-around player,” Ruff said. “Andy’s got a bullet for a slap shot and a quick wrist shot that’s more lethal than his slap shot.”
Satan led the Sabres last season with 26 goals and 75 points while Kotalik added 21 goals as a rookie.
Miller finished with a 1.91 GAA in the preseason while Biron posted a 2.32 GAA. Noronen allowed 3 1/2 goals per game in the three contests he played in.
“All three are in the mix,” Ruff said. “I think all three goaltenders had a great camp.”
2002-03 STANDINGS: Sabres - 72 points, 5th place, 43 PB, Northeast Division. Flyers - 107 points, 2nd place, 1 PB, Atlantic Division.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Sabres - Power play: 14.4 percent (51 for 354), 20th in NHL. Penalty killing: 85.4 percent (310 for 363), 6th (tied). Flyers - Power play: 14.3 percent (47 for 328), 21st (tied). Penalty killing: 85.2 percent (272 for 338), 9th.
GOALTENDERS: Sabres - Biron (17-28-6, 4 SO, 2.56 GAA); Noronen (4-9-3, 1, 2.42); Miller (6-8-1, 1, 2.63). Flyers - Hackett (15-17-2, 1, 2.86); Robert Esche (12-9-3, 2, 2.20).
2002-03 SEASON SERIES: Tied, 2-2.
LAST MEETING: March 18; Sabres, 5-2. At Buffalo, J.P. Dumont had a goal and an assist and Rhett Warrener added two assists as the Sabres kept the Flyers winless at Buffalo since April 8, 2001. LeClair and Tony Amonte scored for Philadelphia.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Sabres - 9-21-5-6 on the road; Flyers - 21-10-8-2 at home.