Philadelphia Flyers: Pair of Unlikely Heroes Carry City's Hopes on Their Back
The story of the 2007-2008 Philadelphia Flyers may be the most improbable one.
After finishing the 2006-2007 season with a franchise-worst 56 points, well entrenched at the very bottom of the standings, many thought this team would be in for a period of rebuilding from the mistakes of Bob Clarke in the offseason prior.
Nobody expected this team to come near contending for the playoffs, regardless of how the 2007 offseason would be handled.
This team just had too many holes up and down the roster, even with the masterful additions of Braydon Coburn, Lasse Kukkonen, Martin Biron, and Scottie Upshall.
Then, Paul Holmgren worked his magic, trading the 1st round pick received from Nashville in the Peter Forsberg trade back to Nashville for sole negotiating rights with Scott Hartnell and Kimmo Timonen before the free agency period began. After this, Homer, as he is affectionately referred to by Flyers faithful, signed Danny Briere to an 8 year, 52 million dollar contract. Then, he traded the highly skilled but very boneheaded Joni Pitkanen, as well as the aging but useful Geoff Sanderson, over to Edmonton for Jason Smith, the new Flyers captain, and Joffrey Lupul, the young right winger who was lauded after a hot season in Anaheim, then was shocked into a year-long slump after being traded to Edmonton right after the season. Homer was criticized for what was seen by most as gross overpayments of all three of his signings, and many wrote off the Flyers for another season.
The Flyers during the 07-08 season overcame much adversity, much of it created on their own by way of the five suspensions incurred between the beginning of the season and December. The Flyers also faced a slew of injuries, most prominently being the concussion of Simon Gagne which resulted in him being in and out of the lineup sporadically between November and January and eventually ended in him being told to shut it down for the season.
After injuries to Richards, the team's 23 year old leader, and Derian Hatcher, the warrior on the blue line who provides much of the team's muscle, grit, as well as leadership (and penalty killing too), the team hit rock bottom in February, coasting through a 10 game losing streak highlighted by an enormous slump by Danny Briere, the team's ten-million-dollar-man.
However, the trade for Vinny Prospal breathed new life into the young team, specifically into Danny Briere, who found a partner in crime, so to speak, who according to Briere "thought hockey the same way" that he did. Their instant chemistry sparked a tear through the remainder of the season by the two, with the Flyers eventually ending the season with two consecutive shutouts.
The Flyers once again played the underdog role in the first round of the playoffs. Washington, arguably the hottest team in hockey at the end of the season, was expected by most to make easy work of the Flyers in no more than 6 games. The Flyers took a quick 3-1 lead over Washington, led by Briere, and despite blowing two games to the Caps to tie the series, managed to send the best left winger in the league back home with some late game heroics by Joffrey Lupul in the overtime of Game 7.
Then came the first-seeded Montreal Canadiens, who many anticipated would take out the Flyers handily in 5 games if they didn't sweep them. After a Game 1 where the Flyers were outshot by a very large margin and, despite having a 1 goal lead until the last 30 seconds, blew the tying goal on a rocket by Kovalev and then blew the game itself in overtime, this figured to be true.
Then the highest scoring player in a single playoff series since Brian Propp wore the Orange and Black decided it was time for his coming out party.
RJ Umberger became the unlikely hero of the series, scoring 8 goals over 5 games to spark an amazing run of four straight wins over the best team in the conference and move the Flyers on to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since Keith Primeau led them down the same path back in 2004.
In a bit of irony, guess who the player who took Primeau's place in the lineup when he went down with a career-ending concussion was.
You got it. RJ Umberger.
Umberger, along with Martin Biron who put on quite possibly the best goaltending show in a Flyers uniform since Ron Hextall in 1987, carried the team, as well as the city which has not seen a major championship of any kind in 25 years and a Stanley Cup in 33, on to the next round.
And who expected the heroes to be these two? With all of the expensive moves made by Holmgren in the offseason, the two players who took the team to the next round were the goalie who was figured to only be decent until Antero Niittymaki was able to take over, and the player who seemed more like a serviceable player who was a sort of journeyman in the roster, able to fill in on all four lines sufficiently but never expected to be the team's scoring punch at any point.
If Biron's brilliance in net continues, he could be in line for a Conn Smythe.
RJ Umberger picked a good time to go on a hot streak, considering he will be a restricted free agent next season. If his play continues, he could be in line for a considerable pay raise.
If these two continue to carry this team, this city, the Flyers could very possibly be in line for a raise too: they could be on the way to raise something this city hasn't seen in far too long.
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