PHILADELPHIA (AP) – The Flyers had the Stanley Cup in their arena. They saw it hoisted, passed around, shaken in celebration – and then packed on a plane headed toward Chicago.
This season, the Flyers want to be the team drinking from the Stanley Cup.
So close to missing the postseason entering the last game of the regular season, Philadelphia mastered the art of the comeback in the playoffs and soared all the way to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals. The Chicago Blackhawks put a sudden end to its hunt for its first title since 1975, but the Flyers return this year believing they can win it all.
Somewhat lost in the hoopla of the championship run was the fact the Flyers were one goal away from missing the playoffs. They won a shootout against the Rangers on the final day to make the postseason – and kept going until June.
So are they really a mediocre bunch of talent that got hot at the right time or a loaded roster that underachieved in the regular season before playing to their potential over a riveting Stanley Cup push?
They stunned the Bruins in the Eastern Conference semifinals and became the first NHL team in 35 years to pull off a 3-0 comeback to win a series.
Coach Peter Laviolette, starting his first full season after taking over in December, says this year's Flyers are the real deal and can contend in the Eastern Conference all season.
"Hopefully we can just keep going from there," Laviolette said. "I know it's a new year but we can certainly build upon those experiences from last year to get us off to a good start this year."
The Flyers open defense of their conference championship Thursday at Pittsburgh in the regular-season debut of the sparkling Consol Energy Center.
The Flyers are expected to have Chris Pronger, one of the NHL's top defenseman, in the lineup after offseason knee surgery. Pronger has been evasive about his availability and only practiced three times since training camp opened.
Pronger averaged nearly 26 minutes on the ice during the regular season, fifth best in the NHL. He was injured in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against Boston, yet still played a league-leading 29 minutes per game.
Philadelphia opens with two huge pieces from last year's run out with injuries. Goalie Michael Leighton has a bulging disc in his back and will be out at least until the end of the month. He went 8-3 with a 2.56 goals-against average in 14 playoffs games and set a team playoff record with three shutouts.