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April 09, 2016

Flyers’ late playoff push full of good stories

Flyers NHL

Sam Gagner has done a lot of watching. Every year when the NHL playoffs are approaching, the 26-year-old winger says to himself that he won’t tune in. Predictably, he can never resist.

After 482 career games played, Gagner doesn’t have to worry about watching the postseason anymore. For the first time in his career, he is playoff-bound with the Philadelphia Flyers. When Pierre-Edouard Bellemare’s late empty-netter sealed the playoff-clinching 3-1 victory over the shorthanded Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday, it was an extra-special moment for Gagner.

“It’s the most exciting hockey, and I’m really excited to get a chance to play it,” Gagner said. “I always feel like I play better in those big moments, and I’m really enjoying the fact that we get a chance to do it.”

“Mason was outstanding, not only today but during that whole stretch, you know, when we went down,” Claude Giroux said. “There were so many games that he put on his back and he kept us in some games and got us some points.”

For this proud franchise, the 38th playoff berth in 48 years happened because a group of individuals raised their level of play through difficult circumstances. The Flyers will meet the Washington Capitals, owners of the Presidents’ Trophy, later this week, and Gagner is only one of many very good stories wearing orange and black.

“Every guy in this dressing room, we battled our butts off for one another and we’re where we want to be,” Wayne Simmonds said.

He would know. Simmonds, who scored goals 31 and 32 on the season against Pittsburgh and is enjoying a career year, summed it up pretty well.

“He does the same things time and time again,” Dave Hakstol said. “I think that is what leads to success as a player.”

How about the goaltender, who battled injury trouble last year and had to sit at times this season because of a backup on top of his game, playing 17 games in 37 days down the stretch and leading the Flyers to 23 points during that span?

After the game was over, the Flyers skated onto the ice and celebrated around their netminder. This is something all teams do, but boy, Steve Mason deserved that recognition.

“Mason was outstanding, not only today but during that whole stretch, you know, when we went down,” Claude Giroux said. “There were so many games that he put on his back and he kept us in some games and got us some points.”

How about the rookie defenseman, who came in somewhat unheralded but helped re-energize a team that had only managed 13 points in 16 games at the time of his call-up?

If Shayne Gostisbehere doesn’t win the Calder Trophy, well, it’s simply because this is a loaded class. His impact on the Flyers has been immeasurable, though.

“Just feels so good especially seeing the veterans and how happy they are,” Gostisbehere said. “It’s pretty awesome to see it happen your first season as well.”

How about the rookie coach that made a very unusual jump from NCAA hockey? Hakstol dealt with injuries and a roster that was limited by poor decisions made long before he even thought about coaching the Philadelphia Flyers. And yet here he is at the end of year one, leading the team into the playoffs.

“We always put value on working to improve the things that we are doing,” Hakstol said. “I think that starts with the coaching staff looking at themselves. We try to do that inside our coaches’ room. But most importantly, it’s the players.”

It’s also the front office, which has expertly walked the tightrope of rebuilding while also trying to contend. Ron Hextall made moves with the future in mind, but he also gave his players a shot at the playoffs. That isn’t an easy trick to pull off.

“When Ron Hextall didn’t make any trades at the trade deadline I think we got pretty close as a team and we set ourselves some goals and we were able to make it,” Giroux said.

And then there is the man who started it all, who isn’t where he’s usually found, in the Wells Fargo Center, celebrating with both fans and players alike.

“When you look in the hallway and it’s the first time he’s not in a picture, it sucks to see it happen,” Simmonds said. “We’re playing to make the playoffs for him. Obviously, like Mr. Snider, we think we got more in the tank. Obviously, I think we’re playing Washington in the first round here so we’re going to dedicate this to Mr. Snider. We’re going to play our asses off.”

Add it all up, and regardless of what happens in the playoffs, the Philadelphia Flyers are one pretty darn good story.

Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann