Everyone seemed so excited at first. That eventually changed.
If there was any residual resentment about the lengthy lockout, it wasnt evident on Saturday. There was real energy in the Wells Fargo Center well in advance of the game. The fans cheered wildly for the Flyers when they were introduced, and they went through their usual anti-Penguins routine, booing each of the players from Pittsburgh and saving a little extra vitriol for Sidney Crosby. The requisite Crosby sucks chants were loud and merry. It was a party.
Hours before the puck dropped, the parking lot at the Wells Fargo Center was packed. People were grilling food and drinking (probably juice or milk, we didnt check) and having what appeared to be a good time. There were so many Flyers sweaters and sweatshirts and jerseys and jackets that it looked like Jackson Pollock had splattered all of South Philadelphia in bright orange and black paint.
Its always a great atmosphere here, Ilya Bryzgalov said. Everyone knows how passionate Flyers fans are it doesnt matter if its a regular season game or the playoffs.
The fans were ready. They were animated. The lockout was over. The NHL was finally, officially back. The Penguins and the Flyers were meeting in the season opener, in a nationally televised game. It was like old times except for one important element.
The last time these two teams met on the ice, the Flyers dispatched the Penguins in the first round of the playoffs, sending their rivals from Western Pennsylvania home in six high-scoring games. It was an amazing series, the kind of hockey that made hardcore puck heads and casual observers alike watch with their mouths open and their eyes wide. It was good times, especially for Flyers fans.
Saturday was different. If last years playoff series was all adrenaline and entertainment, this years first game was more like a semi-sleepy matinee movie with an unsatisfying ending.
Penguins 3, Flyers 1.
The Penguins scored not even five minutes into the game when Tyler Kennedy (or possibly Luke Schenn) redirected a shot from Paul Martin. Less than three minutes after that, James Neal slipped one into the back of the net to give Pittsburgh a two-goal lead. You could see some of the faces in the crowd go slack with disappointment. If there had been a video game-style life force meter in the building, it would have been severely depleted.
The work ethic was there, Claude Giroux said. The structure wasnt really there. It was a little bit sloppy.
All that energy and enthusiasm the crowd had to start the day? It was sucked out the building for a while when the Flyers went down by two goals, as though someone had installed a powerful vacuum in the Wells Fargo Center.
There were moments when things got better for the Flyers and their fans, when it seemed like the team would fight back into the game and the crowd would wake from its intermittent slumber. Giroux scored to start the second period. And the Flyers had quite a few chances in the third period to tie the game.
After the first 13 or 14 minutes, we seemed to play more of the style we were looking for, coach Peter Laviolette said. We controlled the play at times. Lots of shots. Lots of opportunities to put the puck in the net. We werent able to capitalize. There seemed to be a little bit of rust out there. Our passing was a touch off ... I think that will come in time. Theres definitely room for improvement.
The end of that statement was true in part. The Flyers have room from improvement but they dont have a ton of time not in the short or long term. In a 48-game season, as almost everyone has noted, each result becomes magnified. If theres a positive to playing so many games in such a short window, its that the Flyers wont have the opportunity to obsess over losses and let them fester. Theyll be back on the ice on Sunday in Buffalo.
You never want to sit on a loss too long, Laviolette said. We made sure of that with a 12:30 start.
Hockey is back. There will be more of it on Sunday. Maybe it will go better for the Flyers.
E-mail John Gonzalez at email@example.com