Over the last decade we have seen a number of teams across the major professional sports leagues find great playoff success by getting hot at the right time.
As recent as this past season we saw this very scenario play out with the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals and the 2011-2012 New York Giants. These were two teams destined to be hitting the links when their respective league's playoffs began but found away into the postseason in the final week. Both teams were crowned world champions by season’s end.
In the NHL we’ve seen a handful of teams march all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals riding late-season momentum. The 2009-10 Philadelphia Flyers were the most recent club to achieve this feat, sneaking into the playoffs on the last day of the regular season and coming one game and one save short of their third Stanley Cup in franchise history.
In 2008-09 the Penguins were in 10th in the Eastern Conference at the All-Star break, two points out of a playoff spot. They finished the month of March 10-1-2 under new head coach Dan Bylsma and claimed their franchise’s third Stanley Cup with a Game 7 victory over the defending champion Detroit Red Wings.
Add the 2005-06 Edmonton Oilers to the mix, who fell just short of the franchise’s sixth Stanley Cup in Game 7 to the Carolina Hurricanes, and that’s three teams in the post-lockout era alone that have found playoff success thanks to late-season surges.
This season the Philadelphia Flyers are putting together a run here in March that could rival any of the aforementioned clubs.
With a victory last night over division rival New Jersey, and a third consecutive shutout from enigmatic goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov has pushed the Flyers record in March to 6-1-0 and 7-3-0 in their last 10 games. Bryzgalov has four shutouts in that stretch, and with last night’s gem he now holds a shutout streak of 196 minutes and 13 seconds.
Bryzgalov has been the star for the Flyers in the most recent stretch, but it hasn’t been all goaltending. The defense has stepped up its game at crucial times. Playing without veteran defensemen Kimmo Timonen, Pavel Kubina and Andrej Meszaros for times during their most recent success the Flyers blue line has held strong.
Braydon Coburn and Nicklas Grossmann continue their stellar play in front of the net, Matt Carle settles the pace with possession in the defensive zone and even young guys Erik Gustafsson and Brandon Manning have stepped up when called upon. This defensive unit’s recent play actually makes Flyer fans forget they don’t have team captain Chris Pronger. OK, maybe not, but they have been good.
The offense continues to push the pace, playing at a playoff tempo and keeping its foot on the gas for all three periods. Even when that frenzied offensive mindset can’t pot goals, the defense, and most especially the goaltender, has been there to bail them out.
I recognize that along with the Flyers, the Penguins have been on an absolute tear (9-1-0 in their last 10 games), even threatening the top-seeded New York Rangers for the conference lead. The Pens get Sidney Crosby back on Thursday night against those same Rangers in what should be one of the most emotionally charged games of the season.
However, we are talking Flyers hockey here and it can’t be denied that the Orange and Black have started their playoff run already.
This was a season that exploded out of the gate, setting an early tone that gave Flyers fans reason to believe. A miserable winter through January and February left more questions than answers, the biggest of those surrounding the goaltending.
Now, at the most important part of the regular season, the Flyers seem in top playoff form, even despite a laundry list of injuries. If they can continue to build on what they have started to put together in the first half of March we could be looking forward to another magical run this summer in Philadelphia.