Flyers put slump behind them as playoff run begins

The Philadelphia Flyers adjusted their championship caps, pulled on the T-shirts and accepted congratulations from their founder.

Winning their first Atlantic Division title in seven years was a fun way to end the season and forget about the sorry month that preceded the clincher.

Sure, the division championship and the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference are nice accomplishments. It's just not what the Flyers played for this season, not after losing a year ago in the Stanley Cup finals. For nearly six months, the Flyers used that defeat as motivation and played at an elite level that proved they could make another run toward the championship round.

A memorable season unraveled in March, though, leaving it tough to predict if the Flyers are legitimate contenders for their first championship since 1975, or if a first-round exit against the seventh-seeded Buffalo Sabres and one of the hottest goalies in the NHL in Ryan Miller is the more likely scenario.

"I think they're more ready than last year's team," founder and chairman Ed Snider said. "They're a good team, good players, and I'm confident we'll do well in the playoffs."

Slump or no slump, the Flyers (47-23-12; 106 points) have the confidence of a team that steamrolled their way atop the Eastern Conference standings for two months.

"We maybe stumbled and not gotten the bounces we would have liked to down the stretch," team captain Mike Richards said, "but it was nice to see that when we needed to step up, we played a game."

As it always is for the orange-and-black, the biggest concern is in net.

Coach Peter Laviolette stamped rookie Sergei Bobrovsky the postseason starter on the strength of a stellar 28-win season. But Bobrovsky rewarded his coach's faith by blowing an early 2-0 lead before being yanked late in the first period of Saturday's win over the Islanders. He allowed three goals on 10 shots, and was replaced by veteran Brian Boucher.

Laviolette didn't place all the blame on "Bob" — as he's known around the locker room — for the three goals. And, he didn't appear inclined to reverse his decision with Game 1 against Buffalo (43-29-10; 96 points) only days away.

"I stated my intentions a week ago," Laviolette said, "and from this point on, you won't get anything out of me."

Bobrovsky, who speaks and understands limited English, needed little translation to know his teammates backed him.

"Bob will be fine," Boucher said. "He's bounced back all year long. He's a hard worker, and I don't have any worries about him at all."

Boucher will be ready, though, at a moment's notice, and had a solid 18-10 season. He started last postseason as the No. 1 goalie before he sprained the MCL in his left knee during Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals vs. Boston. Michael Leighton took over and led the Flyers to the brink of the championship.

Leighton is again on the postseason roster after spending all but a handful of days in the minor leagues this season because of an early-season back injury.

The Flyers finished the season without shutting out an opponent for the third time in team history (1981-82 and 1988-89).

"I'm sure whoever is in the net, everybody will be comfortable with it," Flyers defenseman Andrej Meszaros said, "and we will go from there."

The Flyers would get a huge boost if defenseman Chris Pronger can return from his broken hand to play against the Sabres. When Pronger went down in late February, so did the Flyers. Pronger is the emotional fuel in the locker room and on the ice, and no one pokes and prods the opposition — like he did by swiping Chicago's winning pucks last year — better than the one-time NHL MVP.

Pronger has been publicly hesitant to say if he'll be back this week. But, he'll likely find a way.

The Flyers face the Sabres in a playoff series for the ninth time, and are 5-3. But the Sabres have won three of the last four series, and, of more importance, they won the last two regular-season games vs. Philadelphia. The Sabres, in fact, capped a two-goal comeback in a 4-3 overtime victory over the Flyers on Friday night.

Even with 47 wins and a division title for the first time since 2003-04, the Flyers' championship hopes are shaky. The win over the Islanders snapped a five-game losing streak (0-3-2), and ended a six-game skid at home (0-2-4).

But the new season has instilled a new belief in the Flyers that they can win it all and parade down Broad Street hoisting the Stanley Cup.

"I don't know if there's a recipe," Laviolette said. "I can tell you that I truly believe that when we wake up, there'll be a little zip in our steps, because were back in the playoffs. I can't stress it enough, you play the 82 games for the sole purpose, for the right to compete for it. That's it, and we're in.

"It's a good thing."