By Glen Macnow
Before the NHL — like the rest of the country — closed its doors in mid-March, Flyers fans were justifiably excited.
Their team was hockey’s hottest since early January. The improvement was so dramatic that the Orange-and-Black rose from being considered a marginal playoff contender to the squad that Vegas awarded the best Stanley Cup odds by early March.
And then the Zambonis shut off. The arenas went vacant. Everything went on hold.
I’m not smart enough to predict when the sports world opens again — hell, I just want to be able to go buy a loaf of bread without fear of death.
But, as you probably know, there are contingency plans to bring back the NHL (and NBA) if safety allows for truncated finishes to their 2019-20 seasons. So the question is if that occurs, can the Flyers pick up where they left off?
The coach of the reigning Stanley Cup champions thinks not.
“Look, they’re a good team,” St. Louis Blues coach Craig Berube said Wednesday on the 94-WIP Morning Show. “They came into our rink and beat us (on Jan. 15). Their defense is strong; the goalie [Carter Hart] is really good. But…”
Berube paused. He was asked, “But?”
“Well, that momentum’s gone. It’s all even now. Every team will have to get itself going from scratch, and that’s tough.”
Berube’s right. Emotion and momentum are huge factors in sports. It will be impossible for Flyers coach Alain Vigneault to snap his fingers and recapture the mojo his team had through the winter.
Still, I like their chances. As Berube said, these Flyers have a solid defense and a talented (if untested) young goalie. More than anything, they have depth, which could become critical during a long playoff process when out-of-practice players round back into shape.
Here’s hoping the boys are allowed to skate again. Even if they come back and lose, hey, we can all look forward to an ascending team next year.
But if they’re not able to return, they’ll join the list of the all-time “should have won it” franchises in Philadelphia history.
For my money, that shortlist includes:
• The 2002 Eagles. The best team of Andy Reid’s 14-year reign. Their plus-174 point differential was by far tops in the NFL. They went 12-4 despite losing Donovan McNabb to a broken ankle in November.
McNabb came back for the playoffs, which ended with his pick-six to Tampa’s Ronde Barber at the last game ever played at the Vet. The Bucs then clobbered the inferior Raiders in the Super Bowl. I’ll forever believe we should have enjoyed our parade 16 years before it finally got here.
• The 2011 Phillies. They ripped off a franchise-record 102 wins in the last season of that five-year run of NL East titles. GM Ruben Amaro’s star-studded pitching staff posted an MLB-best 3.02 ERA.
Then it ended too fast in the playoffs against St. Louis. Normally clutch Cliff Lee blew a 4-0 lead in Game 2 and annoyed us by dismissing it with the words, “That’s baseball.” The bats died in Game 5, as Roy Halladay lost, 1-0. A great season just washed away.
• The 1986-87 Flyers. A different story, as they were prohibitive underdogs against Wayne Gretzky’s amazing Oilers. They got to the Finals despite a series of debilitating injuries, most notably to leading goal scorer, Tim Kerr. No one gave them a chance.
It was rookie Ron Hextall who kept the Flyers in it until the final two minutes of Game 7. Afterward, Gretzky called him, “The best goalie I’ve ever played against.” Maybe I’m stretching my own “should have won it” definition here, but I still believe had a puck or two had bounced another way, this would have been one of sports all-time great upsets.
We don’t know how this Flyers season will end — or if it already has. The world has larger concerns right now. But here’s hoping they get a chance to play it out — and we get the chance to cheer for something.