Flyers proving they are beasts of the East

Nicholas J. Cotsonika

PHILADELPHIA – Before Tuesday night’s game against the Washington Capitals, before they played the “Rocky” theme to fire up the fans, the Philadelphia Flyers put up a quotation on the scoreboard screens at Wells Fargo Center.

It was from Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, who made a lighthearted comment after the Winter Classic that, for him, the highlight of the Jan. 1 outdoor game was how Caps fans and Pittsburgh Penguins fans had found a reason to bond, chanting, “Flyers suck!”

“It means you’re doing something good,” Flyers winger Scott Hartnell(notes) said with a smile, “to have a couple cities hate you.”

The Flyers don’t suck, which, of course, is why fans from Washington and Pittsburgh would chant that they do.

HBO didn’t follow the Flyers for a reality series. The Flyers didn’t appear in the Winter Classic this season. But they are ahead of the NHL’s media darlings, on top of the Eastern Conference and now tied with the Vancouver Canucks on top of the overall league standings.

The Flyers beat the Capitals 3-2 on the day they signed general manager Paul Holmgren to a three-year extension for building them from bottom feeders into Stanley Cup contenders. They didn’t crumble after blowing a 2-0 lead in a matter of 24 seconds in the third period, and defenseman Andrej Meszaros(notes) scored 1:07 into overtime.

They have won 15 of their last 20 games, and they’re about to get stronger. Defenseman Chris Pronger(notes) could return from a broken foot as soon as Thursday against the Ottawa Senators.

“I definitely like our team,” Pronger said. “I like the way we’re coming together.”

Remember that these are the defending Eastern Conference champions.

It’s true that the Flyers squeaked into the playoffs last year – by one point, earned in a shootout, on the last day of the season. It’s true that they didn’t have to face the Capitals or the Penguins in the playoffs. It’s true that they had to rally from a 3-0 series deficit – and a 3-0 deficit in Game 7 – to beat the banged-up Boston Bruins in the second round.

But it’s also true that they came within two victories of the Cup, after switching coaches midseason and switching goaltenders all season, and they’re even better for it now.

“It took us a lot of hockey to find out who we are and who we need to play like to be successful in this league,” Pronger said. “You can look at it as a Cinderella story, or we can look at it as it took us a little while to figure it out.”

And who are they? Who do they need to play like?

“I don’t know,” Pronger said after a long pause. “I’ll leave that up to you. I’ll let you describe what you see.”

I see the Philadelphia Flyers, and by that I mean a team that has been constructed for the new NHL of speed and skill without losing its identity. These aren’t the Broad Street Bullies, but they do have pugilist Jody Shelley(notes), and they’re tough and tough to play against.

“Part of being a Flyer is bringing your lunch pail to work,” Holmgren said. “I don’t think that’s ever going to go away.”

Holmgren, a former Flyers player, coach, scout and assistant GM, took over for Bobby Clarke early in the 2006-07 season. The Flyers finished last in the league. Team president Peter Luukko called it “probably one of the toughest years … in any of our lives.”

The next season, they played in the Eastern Conference final against the Penguins. And now, after a series of smart draft picks, free-agent signings and trades, the Flyers have a deep, talented team with a blend of veterans and youngsters.

The Flyers and the Detroit Red Wings are the only teams in the league with eight players who have scored 10 goals or more. The Flyers have three legit scoring lines, causing matchup problems for opponents, a big reason they have been even better on the road (16-5-3), when they don’t have the last line change, than at home (14-6-2).

They also have a fourth line that can crash and bang and chip in offensively, three solid defense pairings and an out-of-nowhere Russian goaltender in Sergei Bobrovsky(notes) who is a candidate for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year.

Then there is coach Peter Laviolette, who won a Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006 and nearly won another with the Flyers after taking over about halfway through last season.

Laviolette learned last season that, after a long road trip, he could keep his players from checking out by checking into a hotel for the next home game. That way, they wouldn’t sink into the sofa or be distracted by honey-do lists. That way, they could keep that road mentality and focus on hockey.

So after playing nine of out 10 games on the road – and going 7-3 during that stretch – Laviolette loaded the boys onto a bus Tuesday afternoon and sent them to a hotel again. And it worked again. They’re 3-0 when pretending to be on the road.

“Hopefully that continues if we ever have to do it again – hopefully not, though,” Flyers captain Mike Richards(notes) said. “My bed is much comfier.”

Richards smiled. A little.

“Especially against a team like Washington, I really thought it was important,” Laviolette said. “You don’t want to look back at a game like tonight and feel like you [gave away] two points because you were a little bit flat and end up getting edged out by Pittsburgh.”

Chant what you want. Right now, the edge belongs to Philadelphia.