TAMPA, Fla. -- He had already made the coaching change from Peter Laviolette to Craig Berube weeks earlier, just three games into the season.
His captain, Claude Giroux, was still without a goal and wouldn’t score until the 16th game.
The team on the ice was still trying to forget everything it had been taught about up-tempo offense and pushing the attack while trying to convert to “defense first.”
Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren looked at his 1-7-0 Flyers club that was dead last in the Eastern Conference (16th) and knew the turnaround wouldn’t come overnight.
As it turned out, it would take 22 games for the Flyers to break even with a 10-10-2 record, just before Thanksgiving.
“The coaching change was a significant change in the style of play from Lavy to Chief, and I knew it was going to take some time for the players to understand what Chief wanted them to do,” Holmgren said. “It was a time of understanding, learning and executing. We started to chip away and got better. I told our coaches it would take time. It’s been a really good group of guys all year.”
Incredibly, while no one gave the Flyers a chance at 1-7, Giroux boldly predicted they would make the playoffs. Even Holmgren was surprised.
“Who knows why Claude said what he said,” Holmgren said.
It took the Flyers to Game No. 79 to clinch a playoff berth with just three games to spare. Yet given how far the team had come under Berube from October, it’s an achievement for the Flyers to be proud of.
So much went wrong so quickly. The entire team began the season in a scoring slump, exacerbated by Giroux’s right hand surgery from an August golf accident that left him powerless to help the club on the offensive end.
His early-season slump cost him a spot with Team Canada at the Olympics.
Holmgren said the entire staff took turns talking to Giroux, encouraging him, in October.
“Claude tries,” Holmgren said. “He really tries. He’s his own worst critic and doesn’t need anyone else telling him. He had a lot on his plate. I felt his hand injury affected him more than he was willing to accept. I didn’t think his shot was up to snuff to where it is now. He could not shoot as hard as he can now. It took time to get his strength back in the hand. Same with passing the puck. No zip on his passes earlier this year.”
Yet what Holmgren saw was a captain and a team that was competing, playing defense, and getting a big push from goalie Steve Mason, who kept the Flyers close in games, even the ones they would lose.
Everyone has an opinion on when the Flyers turned the season around. The players, coaches, media and even Holmgren don’t agree on specifics.
“Too many things involved,” was how Kimmo Timonen put it.
Yet Holmgren, like Berube, felt the Flyers' post-Christmas trip was significant as the Flyers went 5-1 with victories in Western Canada, Phoenix and New Jersey and a 2-1 loss in Colorado.
“That road trip probably got us into believing we were a relevant team,” Holmgren said. “There was more than one [trip] though.”
By the time that trip ended, the Flyers had advanced to fifth in the East and second in the Metropolitan Division. They were seeded 11th in mid-December.
From Jan. 7 till now, the Flyers spent just three games in the standings where they were actually out of a playoff spot (seeded ninth), the last playing date being Feb. 3 after they destroyed San Jose, 5-2, in California, yet still lost ground in the standings.
The post-Olympic break saw the Flyers go 9-3-2 in March and defeat some very good teams as part of their stretch run of tough games that ended last Saturday in Boston.
The Flyers posted 14 (6-4-2) of a possible 24 points, earning points and wins against Pittsburgh, Chicago, Dallas and St. Louis.
Berube, Holmgren and the players agree that stretch of games from March 15 to April 5 was critical to building team character and whipping the Flyers into playoff shape.
“We knew that if we got into the playoffs, we would be battle-tested because of those games down the stretch,” Holmgren said. “It’s been good. You are playing teams like that, you got to be ready or you will be embarrassed.”
Though the Flyers endured a recent scoreless streak of 165 minutes, 1 second, they had played pretty strong defense during losses to Boston, St. Louis and Columbus.
Holmgren admits, however, had concerns these past two weeks.
“I can remember saying to somebody, ‘it’s a bad time of year not to be scoring,’” he said. “We were playing well defensively. Zero-zero with the Blues. We were hanging in there with the Bruins. One goal loss to the Kings. You get down to this time of year and those are the kind of games you have to win. It’s the 2-1 games. You have to be confident playing a 0-0 game. And take your chances when you get the opportunities.”
Barring a collapse in the final three games, the Flyers should face the Rangers in the playoffs, starting next week.
Berube said he wants to rest some players, including Mason, who will only work one of the back-to-back games that ends the regular season this weekend.
“Whoever we play in the playoffs, it is going to be a good team,” Holmgren said. “We’ll see what happens. No sense talking about it now.”