Morrison: Cleared for takeoff at just the right time

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It’s no sure thing the Philadelphia Flyers will make the playoffs, but they’re the bubble team nobody wants to face

Rare is the spring when a true underdog rises to win the Stanley Cup.

Two years ago, eighth-seeded Los Angeles won it all, but those Kings were not your typical No. 8. They were a good team that underperformed, then figured things out at the best possible time. Prior to that, the lowest-ranked team to win the Cup was the fifth-seeded New Jersey Devils in 1995.

But as parity continues to tighten its grip on the NHL, each year it feels more and more like all you have to do is get to the playoffs to have a real chance. There always seems to be a bubble team that upsets the apple cart and sends a contender home early.

One team that no doubt feels it has that chance is the Philadelphia Flyers. It’s hard to fathom that an outfit that fired its coach three games into the season, started a franchise-worst 1-7-0 and watched its best player struggle to find his game would be considered a playoff dark horse just five months later. But here we are.

The Flyers are not a lock to make the post-season, but they have quality March wins on their resumé, sweeping the Pittsburgh Penguins in a weekend series then knocking off the defending Stanley Cup–champion Chicago Blackhawks a few nights later—strong statements, indeed.

Should they qualify, the Flyers are a team the contenders would prefer to avoid. Coach Craig Berube has patiently restored his charges’ confidence, and Philadelphia has been among the better teams in the league since they turned things around. Berube revived star centre Claude Giroux, who had a mere six assists through the first 15 games, and brought a pulse back to underachievers throughout the lineup.

The Flyers are not the best team in the East—that distinction belongs to the Boston Bruins, who were on a mid-month tear themselves. And despite a ton of injuries, Sidney Crosby and the Penguins are second, though they will enter the playoffs with the usual doubts in goal. After that, however, it is wide open—and the Flyers are built to get hot and make a run.

Giroux has pulled himself up to the top five in league scoring with a performance worthy of acknowledgement on an MVP ballot, somewhere behind Crosby. As a result, the Flyers have been a solid offensive team that can also crash and bang if they need to. In goal, Steve Mason has been pretty darn good at times, and we all know “goaltending” and “pretty darn good” aren’t words that have often appeared in the same sentence for the Flyers over the years. Philadelphia’s special teams have also been excellent, and while the defencemen are a concern, Berube would argue it is improved team defence, not individual parts, that has made the Flyers so much better than they were during their disastrous start.

The point is that they could be very tough to play in a seven-game series—and it’s not a new situation for them, either. Four years ago, they were the seventh seed in the East and found their way to the Stanley Cup final, only to lose to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games. Doing that again might be a long shot, but if the Flyers are there come April 16, they’ll be among the East’s toughest outs.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

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