Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Prophecy becomes reality as Flyers clinch playoff berth

Sunrise, FL --  Admit it. You thought it was crazy.

Mired in the worst start in franchise history, (1-7-0) Claude Giroux made a bold prediction in late October, and then did everything in his power to make it come true.

Giroux  scored  twice  and  the Philadelphia Flyers punched their ticket to the postseason with a 5-2 win over the Florida Panthers on Tuesday.

A year after missing out, the Flyers will be taking part in the chase for  the Stanley  Cup for  a sixth  time in  the past  seven seasons,  and the franchise  has missed the playoffs just twice since the lockout-shortened 1995 campaign.

The 25-year-old captain spoke thus, during that interminable week-long gap between a 4-1 loss to the Penguins and a 2-1 win over the Rangers: "We're not far off at all. How many points are we out, six? To think of the start that we had and we're that close . . . we never thought about not making the playoffs. We've got to go game by game and we will make the playoffs."

It took 71 more on a game-by-game basis, but it was accomplished. In the process, the club improved to 20-2-1 when their captain scores at least once and 40-22-9 since he laid down the gauntlet in public.

Philadelphia  still  remains  two  points behind  the  Rangers,  who  defeated Carolina  on Tuesday,  for second place in the Metropolitan Division, but does have a game in hand. The way things are going, the two rivals are heading for a first-round matchup, their first in the postseason in 17 years.

Sean  Couturier,  Tye McGinn  and Vincent  Lecavalier each had  a goal for the Flyers,  who  have won two  straight after dropping  six of seven. Steve Mason made 38 saves and tied a career best with his 33rd win of the year.

"I just believed in this team," Giroux said of his early-season prediction. "Last year, not making the playoffs was unacceptable. We're aware of that. For us to be able to be in the playoffs this year, especially with the start we had, we've got to be proud of ourselves. We've got to make sure that we keep playing like that."

Jonathan Huberdeau and Erik Gudbranson lit the lamp for the Panthers, who have lost six of seven. Pressed into service due to the late revelation that Roberto Luongo suffered an upper-body injury, Dan Ellis gave up all five goals on 27 shots.

"We wanted to focus on doing well in the first period," noted Panthers head coach Peter Horachek. "They did a great job on that 5-on-3. You would have thought that would have been huge momentum for us. I was unhappy with that second period for sure. I didn't think their goals were good goals. We just sat back and turned over pucks, were standing still in the neutral zone." 

The tenacious visitors took control thanks to a four-goal second period, which was started at 2:02 on Lecavalier's 20th of the year.

Adam  Hall picked  off the puck at the  left side of the Florida net and got a shot  off  that  Ellis  stopped.  The rebound,  though,  came  out  front  and Lecavalier snapped it in through traffic.

A  few minutes  later Mason made a beautiful  left pad save on a low shot from Tomas Fleischmann, and Giroux made it a 2-0 game at 6:29 as he skated down the middle and backed off the defender before firing a shot in.

That marker snapped a five-game drought, his longest since going seven games from January 8-20.

Giroux  notched his second of the game 2:21 later when Mark Streit skated down the  right wing and  sent a backhand pass to the slot where the Philly captain used a sweeping one-timer for his 27th of the season.

It  was a  4-0 game at 15:03  after Braydon Coburn's shot from the right point was  deflected by  a defender to the  right side where Couturier shot it in to snap a 17-game goalless drought.

"In the second period I just let in four [bad] goals," Ellis mused. "It's unacceptable, it's frustrating as [heck]. You're one of the primary reasons for the loss. I take responsibility for that loss. I can't let two pucks go right through me. I need to be able to find a way to carry that momentum from the first period through the rest of the game with the same focus and I didn't do it. It's ridiculous."

Florida  came out strong  in the third period and got one in at 1:14 thanks to Gudbranson's  shot from  the right point that beat Mason, and Huberdeau scored from  the left circle when his shot caromed off the stick of Streit and fooled Mason between the pads at 5:38.

Philadelphia  head  coach Craig Berube then  called a timeout to settle things down,  and  it worked as  the Flyers  limited the chances  for the rest of the game.

McGinn  sealed the  win with 4:54 to  play as he tapped home a Lecavalier feed from the left side for his fourth of the season. For the well-traveled winger, it was his first goal since scoring twice on Oct. 15 in his first call-up from the American Hockey League.

"Well, it's great," Berube said in his typical dry, blunt style. "I told the guys, 'You should be proud of yourselves.' I mean, they went through a lot and they battled hard all year. They're a good group of guys, good character, and they deserve a lot of credit for making the playoffs."

For the first time as an NHL bench boss, Berube gets to test his mettle first earned as an assistant on the 2005 Calder Cup-winning Phantoms. 

The  first period passed  without a goal as the Flyers were unable to find the back  of the  net during 1:40 of  a two-man advantage. Mason made 10 saves and Ellis stopped 12.

Notes: Lecavalier  was  the seventh  Flyer to  reach 20  goals on  the season. He has reached  20 goals in 13 of his 15 seasons in the NHL ... The club last sported seven  players  with 20-or-more scores  in 1989-90,  a season which halted the team's  run of 17  straight seasons with a playoff berth ... Mason also won 33 games  during  his  Calder  Trophy-winning 2008-09  season  for  Columbus  ...
Philadelphia  continues its  three-game road  trip  in Tampa  on Thursday  ... Florida  hosts  Toronto on Thursday ...  Philly took two of three from Florida this  season ... The Orange and Black have seen playoff hockey in 37 of its 46 NHL sojourns.
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