By Mark Zimmaro
Who knows what could have been?
It’s a phrase often muttered by Flyers fans after the team was eliminated in the Stanley Cup Playoffs each spring.
What if Bernie Parent was healthy against the Habs way back in 1976?
What if offsides was called against the Islanders in 1980?
What if the Flyers hadn’t run into one of the greatest teams of all time in the 1985 and ’87 Oilers or the eventual dynasty Detroit Red Wings in 1997?
There have been plenty of “What if’s” during the Flyers’ 45-year championship drought, and the 2019-20 Flyers might be one of the strangest questions of all time when all is settled.
Will there actually be a conclusion? And if so, how will this team play after such a long layoff after building such great momentum leading up to the suspension of the season two weeks ago?
Looking back over the last 20 years, the Flyers have certainly posted quite a few memorable seasons and “what-if’s.” Unfortunately, history hasn’t been too kind the following year after those big runs.
Here’s what happened, the what if, and what followed.
What Happened: In one of the craziest years in team history, the Flyers overcame the loss of head coach Roger Neilson, who stepped away from the team to fight bone cancer and was replaced by Craig Ramsay in February. The team erased a 15-point deficit to win the Atlantic Division and the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
After sweeping Buffalo in the first round, the Flyers defeated Pittsburgh in six games, which included a five-overtime victory in game four thanks to a goal by Keith Primeau. The Flyers then faced the New Jersey Devils in the conference final and lost in seven games after holding a 3-1 lead in the series.
What if: Eric Lindros hadn’t been taken out by Scott Stevens on a questionable hit early in Game 7? Lindros exited the game, and the Flyers offense went cold in a 2-1 loss on home ice.
What Followed: The 2001 Flyers looked much different as Lindros, unhappy with how he was diagnosed with his concussion history, sat out the season to eventually be traded to the New York Rangers, ending a tumultuous relationship with then-GM Bobby Clarke. John LeClair missed 66 games and Keith Jones was forced to retire early in the season. The Flyers still managed a 100-point season thanks to a tremendous effort from goaltender Roman Cechmanek, but were defeated by the Sabres in the first round of the playoffs.
What Happened: Riding the hot hand of Robert Esche in goal, the Flyers won the Atlantic with 101 points and defeated New Jersey and Toronto before running into the eventual Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning in the conference final. Despite a Herculean performance by Primeau, Tampa won the series in seven games, including a crushing 2-1 defeat in Game 7. It was one of the Flyers’ best teams that many believe would have won the Stanley Cup had they gotten past the Lightning.
What if: The Flyers hadn’t traded a 22-year-old Justin Williams to the Carolina Hurricanes for defenseman Danny Markov in January of that year? Williams went on to win three Stanley Cups with the Hurricanes and Kings, and we hear he was pretty good in Game 7’s the rest of his career.
What Followed: No hockey. For the first time in the league’s history, the NHL did not have a season because of a labor dispute and no Stanley Cup was awarded for the first time since 1919, when the season was canceled because of the Spanish Flu epidemic. Sound familiar? When hockey resumed in 2005-06, the Flyers had turned over two-thirds of the roster. They were a first-round playoff casualty.
What Happened: Following one of the worst seasons in Flyers history, the team completely revamped its lineup, signing Kimmo Timonen, Scott Hartnell and Daniel Briere and trading for Jason Smith and Joffrey Lupul. The Flyers captured the six seed in the playoffs and upset the Capitals and Canadiens before running into the Pittsburgh Penguins, who ousted the Flyers in five games.
What if: Timonen and Braydon Coburn had been healthy? Timonen suffered a scary blood clot before the Penguins series and Coburn was injured in Game 2, leaving the Flyers blue line completely depleted and unable to keep up with the high-flying Penguins.
What Followed: The Flyers handed the team over to the young guys the following season, as Mike Richards was named captain. The team lost in the first round of the playoffs to those same Penguins.
What Happened: The 2009-10 season could have been a big “what if” in the other direction. What if the Flyers hadn’t beaten Henrik Lundqvist and the New York Rangers on the last day of the regular season in a shootout? But they did. And the Flyers went on a Cinderella run as the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference, defeating the Devils, Bruins and Canadiens en route to their first Stanley Cup Final appearance since 1997.
All it took was the most dramatic comeback in team history in Round Two, climbing back from a 0-3 series deficit against the Bruins. The Flyers trailed 0-3 in Game 7 and stormed back to beat the Bruins 4-3 in Boston. They would face the Blackhawks in the Cup Final and Chicago won in six games, capturing its first Cup since 1961.
What if: The Flyers had gotten a darn save in the final series? The Blackhawks put five goals past Michael Leighton in a 6-5 Game 1 victory, and scored seven on Leighton and Brian Boucher in a 7-4 win in Game 5. We’ve all seen that eerie Patrick Kane overtime goal in Game 6 to clinch it.
What Followed: It actually wasn’t that bad. At least not immediately. The Flyers did trade away Simon Gagne before the 2010-11 season and turned the reins over to rookie goalie Sergei Bobrovsky. The Flyers won the Atlantic Division and the two seed in the playoffs, and won a round before losing to eventual Stanley Cup champ Boston. The fallout came that summer, as the Flyers traded away cornerstones Mike Richards and Jeff Carter.
What Happened: The Flyers, under new coach Alain Vigneault, found a sense of camaraderie and became one of the top teams in the league, despite being without the services of Nolan Patrick and Oscar Lindblom. Philadelphia had accumulated 89 points with 13 games left in the season and had the sixth-best record in the league. The Flyers had won nine of their last 10 games before the league was suspended.
What if: The NHL and the rest of the world hadn’t been affected by a coronavirus, which has crippled the country and suspended the league indefinitely?
What Followed: Stay tuned.