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April 17, 2024

The Flyers gave Philly something to be proud of

The Flyers fought. They defied nearly all expectation. But their final push for the playoffs was stopped short. There's still a ways for them to go, but already, they've taken major strides. And for that, everyone should be proud.

Flyers NHL
Flyers-Fan-Salute-4.16.24-NHLjpg Eric Hartline/USA TODAY Sports

The Flyers salute their fans before leaving the ice for the last time of the 2023-24 season.

John Tortorella took to a makeshift podium within the catering room and the dead quiet of the Wells Fargo Center's ground floor. 

It was a Monday in the middle of October. The Flyers held an open practice at the arena for fans ahead of their season opener the next night, but the Phillies were well into another postseason run while the Eagles were several weeks into their next campaign, and each with championship or bust expectations. 

The Philadelphia Flyers, they didn't have those. They weren't that, and the city's attention was understandably elsewhere. 

After years of middling in mediocrity and ever-growing apathy, the organization came to grips over the summer that they had to rebuild, and the new front office regime of Tortorella, general manager Danny Brière, president of hockey ops Keith Jones, and governor Dan Hilferty never made any bones about it: They weren't going to tear the thing down completely, but the process was still going to take years all the same. 

They wanted that attention back. Slowly but surely, they wanted to earn it back.

"I've said that to you from Day 1, that's our goal," Tortorella said all those months ago. "Is to be a competitive team in this city, in this league, and get it back to an atmosphere that the building's used to, that we're all used to."

They're not there yet, and still have a considerable ways to go, but after the final horn and a salute to a home crowd that was the loudest it's been in a long time on Tuesday night, the Flyers left the ice one last time having taken some major strides, ones that carried them much further than anyone could've expected back in October and ones that hopefully carry promise for much, much more.

With faint playoff hopes on the line, the Flyers battled but in the end fell to the Washington Capitals, 2-1, to bring their year to an end after the 82nd and final regular season game.  

Sam Ersson put up one more big performance in goal and the defense in front of him held strong, but Charlie Lindgren and the Capitals didn't crack either in a 1-1 struggle. And requiring a win in regulation to stay alive, Tortorella made the call to pull Ersson with just over three minutes left to get an extra attacker out there and go for that last goal. 

There was nothing to lose, but the gamble ended with T.J. Oshie getting the puck and finding the back of the empty net instead. 

It was the end of the line, and in the moment, it stung – the players admitted as much postgame. 

But considering what many expected them to be at the start of the season – a bottom-of-the-barrel team that would be in search of a high draft pick and maybe a few positive signs of player development – they left it instead with a whole lot to hold their heads high over, even after being stopped short on the doorstep, and after so many bizarre ebbs and flows that they had to endure. 

Because for almost all of it, they defied nearly all expectation. 

The Flyers played tough hockey and beat good teams – from Western heavyweights like Dallas, Colorado, and Winnipeg, to Eastern powerhouses like Tampa Bay, Florida, and Toronto, and toward the end, longstanding demons like the Bruins and Rangers.

Travis Sanheim, who was one "yes" away from being traded in the summer, rebounded from a disastrous first year under Tortorella in a big way to take on heavier and heavier minutes on the top defensive pairing with a more and more confident skating Cam York on his other side. 

Joel Farabee shouldered more responsibility, Travis Konecny stepped up as a leader and aggressive two-way heartbeat of the team, while Sean Couturier, back after a nearly two-year layoff from repeated back issues, finally became the leader of the team. 

Tyson Foerster, in his first full NHL season, hit the 20-goal mark, and Owen Tippett, in his second, topped his previous career-high with 28. 

Nick Seeler, even at age 30, broke out into a full-time role and to finally earn a secure contract, and even Egor Zamula as a long-term project flashed stretches of a puck-moving prowess along the blue line that could constantly keep play moving downhill if fully put together. 

The list of positives goes on, and for the majority of the season, the Flyers had grabbed on to a playoff spot, held on to it, and for a good bit, genuinely looked like one. 

But the adversity stretched on too.

Losing to the Sharks, easily the worst team in the league, early on (though they won five straight right after); Getting gassed and then thrashed in a gauntlet run heading toward the All-Star break, which wouldn't be the last time; The trajectory-shifting trade of top prospect Cutter Gauthier to Anaheim for Jamie Drysdale after he secretly wanted out from the organization; the future-focused deadline deal that shipped Sean Walker to Colorado for a first-rounder when Brière knew it would leave the team of today worse off; banged up and beaten down injury woes and extended slumps in the back half of the year that always seemed to hit at the worst possible time; the worst power-play in the NHL through all of it; and then that late eight-game winless streak with a ticket to the playoffs right there for the taking, which ultimately proved a step too far to recover from.

"From the start of the year, I think everyone was counting us out," Scott Laughton said dejected after Tuesday night's loss. "Probably had an eight-game losing streak at the worst time of the year. 

"Couldn't really regain ground, and that's what cost us. But we played pretty good hockey, pretty stingy hockey for most of the year. This one hurts though. You're in the playoffs all year, you get out...It's tough. It's a tough pill to swallow. This one's probably the toughest."

And then there was the goalie situation.

Carter Hart left the team in late January to face sexual assault charges tied to the 2018 Hockey Canada scandal – a matter far, far more serious than hockey – Cal Petersen and Felix Sandström couldn't prove reliable options to turn to, and Ivan Fedotov made a late arrival over from Russia but did so needing time to adjust. 

So Tortorella kept turning to Ersson, who kept answering the call, but who the coach admitted down the stretch was only ever supposed to play around 18-22 games. The 24-year old netminder finished the year having played 51, by far the most hockey in his career, and during that eight-game spiral for the Flyers, definitely looked it. 

But he never quit, and in the last three games, found one more gear to shift to, allowing only two goals against the Devils, Rangers, and Capitals combined.

"That is one of the most encouraging things of it all, is the last three games, that Ers can go home in the summer with that," Tortorella said postgame. "It's ridiculous how much we played him, but he gets to go home feeling he rebounded and found himself again. That's very encouraging."

"That's the type of player I want to be," Ersson said. "I want to play a lot of games. It's tough. We wanted to play more, but I think we did a lot of good things this year."

Sam-Ersson-Flyers-Entrance-4.1.24-NHL.jpgEric Hartline/USA TODAY Sports

Sam Ersson has logged heavy minutes for the Flyers this season.

The rest of the team never quit either, even when things looked their bleakest, noise from the outside was at its harshest, and as they saw their playoff hopes dwindle down to all but zero. They fought until the last second. 

"That's good for them," Tortorella said earlier Tuesday following the morning skate in Voorhees. "Some of the scrutiny was brought on to the team, and not in a good light. I heard – it's beyond me – I heard the word 'quit.' Not a chance. I'll tell ya right now. 

"There wasn't a God d*** second that those guys quit. You gotta be really careful how you use that word, no matter what context you want to put it in, at who, what, wherever, they didn't quit – not for a second. But for them to hear it, for them to be questioned, all of us, that's part of the process. You don't complain about it. You go about your business, but you learn how to handle that type of situation. Really important for basically a pretty young group out there." 

And so was coming so close to the playoffs, even after all the ups and the dramatic (often bizarre) downs, and falling short in the end, but just realizing what that last push it takes to get there looks like. 

"As a group all year long, we've responded well to adversity and no one really gave us a chance," said Couturier, who admitted he wasn't satisfied with how his second half of the season slipped after earning the captaincy. "We fought all year long, even through that eight-game stretch, other than Montreal, which was a tough one. We battled every night, we don't give up, that's the character of this team, I think. 

"Down the stretch, obviously, I think it was a little too late, but we didn't give up. We still fought and gave ourselves a little chance even if it wasn't a big one. That's what you want."

And it's something for Philadelphia to be proud of. It's a reason to start paying attention to the Flyers again. But it's not the final product, and they know it. 

There's still a considerable ways to go.

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