It's not every day a losing team is shown appreciation in Philadelphia. Yet that was the scene at the Wells Fargo Center immediately after the Washington Capitals eliminated the Flyers from the Stanley Cup playoffs on Sunday, a crowd of almost 20,000 giving the boys in orange and black a standing ovation and a hearty "Let's go Flyers!" chant for their valiant effort.
It was a fitting tribute for a group that exceeded expectations and arguably overachieved, a squad that earned the respect of not only its fans, but the entire NHL by coming to play all 82 games. There were no nights off against the Flyers this season. Up until the very end, facing a far superior opponent, down 3-0 in the series, smaller, out-manned and tired, they refused to quit, nearly dragging the Capitals to a Game 7.
Win or lose, the fans who were in that building and no doubt many more viewing at home knew they had witnessed something bordering on special. At minimum, they can appreciate a fun ride with they've been on one - and maybe, just maybe, the start of something bigger.
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Too often we are quick to disregard a team's season because they didn't mount a deep playoff run, much less conclude with a championship and a parade. Sports are treated as zero-sum rather than an entertainment product, where, to quote Ricky Bobby, "If you ain't first, you're last."
Well, the Flyers may have come in last, but it sure was a lot of fun watching them cross the finish line.
It all began with the unconventional hire of head coach Dave Hakstol out of North Dakota and watching his fingerprints slowly wash over the team. Hakstol got career years out of young players whose development had seemingly stagnated, namely Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier. Hakstol expertly juggled goaltenders Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth, both of whom seemed to thrive on one-upping each other. Hakstol squeezed the most out of an offense whose only top-line players included Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek and Wayne Simmonds. Maybe best of all, Hakstol allowed Shayne Ghostisbehere to be himself, resulting in a historic rookie season beyond worthy of Calder Trophy consideration.
Ghostisbehere's ascension alone would've made the 2015-16 season memorable. The electrifying 23-year-old showed an uncanny ability to rise to the moment and score the go-ahead goal, especially in overtime where he net four game-winners. And who could forget his remarkable 15-game point streak, shattering the record for rookie defensemen.
Everything culminated with an improbable playoff push. The Flyers overcame a 7-9-5 start - that's one quarter of the season - to go 34-18-9 the rest of the way, including an 18-7-5 record in the final two months. They were hands down one of the best teams in hockey down the home stretch, momentum the organization hopes will carry into the 2016-17 campaign.
Which is another reason why this campaign felt perhaps a bit more meaningful than it actually was. The Flyers took the NHL by storm in what was widely considered a rebuilding year of sorts. Imagine where the franchise can be in a season or two as some of its recent high draft picks reach the league and general manager Ron Hextall comes into a little money to actually spend on free agents.
Imagine if this was only the start of a longer, more sustained run of success for the Flyers.
No doubt, this was a trying season inside the Flyers locker room. Few people understood at the time that the team was rallying for owner Ed Snider, who passed just before the playoffs began. The year was not without its low points, to say the least.
It was also a team that Snider and Flyers fans could be proud of, and while it did not achieve the ultimate goal of a Stanley Cup, it was certainly a season that brought joy and gave hope for the future. It was not a year that will be forgotten quickly, and if the Flyers continue headed in the right direction, it's a season that has the potential to be remembered fondly for a long time.