If one were to look back at squads the Philadelphia Flyers have iced over the years the 1996-97 and 2009-10 teams are the first two teams most fans would point to as the best groups to never win it all. Each team has some valid reasons as to why they should earn the label as ‘the best to never win it’ but there’s a third team the Orange and Black have thrown out there in somewhat recent history that deserves mentioning when it comes to this topic and it’s the 2003-04 Flyers.
The Flyers’ postseason run in 2004 makes them one of the more frustrating teams to look back on because of what could have been. Although they didn’t reach the Stanley Cup Final like the 1996-97 and 2009-10 teams, the 2003-04 Flyers were the only one to push the eventual Stanley Cup Champions to a seventh game. On top of that the 2003-04 squad has a certain sense of ‘what if’ to them since they didn’t have the following-season burnouts that the 1997-98 and 2010-11 teams had since there was no 2004-05 campaign with the league changing drastically afterwards.
Following a 45-win, 107-point season in 2002-03 that was met with a six-game defeat in the Eastern Conference Semifinals at the hands of the Ottawa Senators the Orange and Black came into the 2003-04 season with some expectations. With Roman Cechmanek being dealt to the Los Angeles Kings and Jeff Hackett signing with the club after leaving the Boston Bruins, the Flyers’ situation in the blue paint shuffled around but the team was still expected to contend for a Stanley Cup.
The Flyers went on to win 40 games on the way to 101 points and their second-most recent division title in the old Atlantic Division. Mark Recchi led the team with both 26 goals (tied for 28th in the NHL) and 75 points (tied for 12th). The group of Recchi, Simon Gagne (24 goals), John LeClair (23), Michal Handzus (20), and Tony Amonte (20) made the Flyers one of just three teams in 2003-04 to post five 20-goal scorers.
One memory from that season was the infamous brawl against the Ottawa Senators in early March of 2004, where the teams combined for 419 penalty minutes.
Another one was goalie Jeff Hackett retiring shortly after discovering he was dealing with vertigo. On top of those stories, the team also dealt Justin Williams to the Carolina Hurricanes for Danny Markov, Eric Weinrich to the St. Louis Blues for a fifth-round pick in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft (and drafted this dude), and Chris Therien to the Dallas Stars for a pair of picks. Mike Comrie pulled off the impressive feat of being traded to the Flyers and signing an extension with the team in December of 2003 before being shipped out to the Phoenix Coyotes for Sean Burke after Hackett’s diagnosis less than two months later. To go along with the additions of Markov and Burke, then general manager Bobby Clarke decided to add forward Alexei Zhamnov from the Chicago Blackhawks for d-man Jim Vandermeer, a second in 2004, and the rights to future/former Blackhawk Colin Fraser. Zhamnov went on to have 18 points in 20 regular-season games and 14 points in 18 postseason games for his entire Flyers’ career, which lasted all of three months.
After winning the division title in a season where they changed their starting goalie and dealt with the trio of Jeremy Roenick, Keith Primeau, and Eric Desjardins each missing 20 games or more it’s not too farfetched to say the Flyers may have had a more impressive playoff run. Their reward for earning the three seed was a meeting with the New Jersey Devils in the first round, the defending Stanley Cup champs who had won three of the previous nine titles. One of New Jersey’s Cups came in 1995, after they beat the Flyers in the Eastern Conference Final in Philly’s first year to the playoffs with Eric Lindros, and another came in 2000, when Scott Stevens effectively ended Lindros’ career as a Flyer. The team that handed Philly a pair of nightmare playoff endings while collecting a trio of Cups in quick order served as a pretty big obstacle for the Orange and Black (Scott Stevens or not). The Flyers won Games 1 and 2 each by the score of 3-2 before Robert Esche stopped 35 shots in Game 4 to put Philly up 3-1 in the series. They knocked the Devils out with a 3-1 decision in Game 5 where deadline-addition Zhamnov opened the scoring and Markov won it with 5:23 left in regulation.
After a satisfying demolishing of the Devils the Orange and Black went on to beat the Toronto Maple Leafs in the next round. The Leafs were Cup contenders in the early 2000’s and they didn’t hold back at the 2004 trade deadline when they acquired Ron Francis and Brian Leetch. The two veterans helped the Maple Leafs to 103 points during the regular season and a first-round defeat of the Ottawa Senators in seven games.
After the home team took each of the first four games of the series, a hat trick from Primeau and two goals from Michal Handzus gave Philly a monstrous 7-2 victory in Game 5 before the teams headed back to the Air Canada Centre. Thanks to Radovan Somik’s final NHL playoff goal and Roenick’s first of the evening the Flyers were up by two with 4:30 left in the opening frame of Game 6. This is where the score stood in the third period, when the Leafs started to take control of the game and made it a 2-2 tilt with 4:52 left thanks to tallies from Karel Pilar and Mats Sundin in a span of 6:04.
As the game moved into overtime the Leafs carried over their momentum from the end of regulation and put a ton of offensive pressure on the Flyers until a seismic hit made the night unforgettable. Sami Kapanen was near the right point in the Maple Leafs’ zone when Darcy Tucker absolutely leveled him to add another layer of noise onto what the ACC crowd had already provided in a loud overtime. On a play that would have been blown dead immediately in today’s league, Kapanen struggled for several seconds to get to the Flyers’ bench after the check while play moved to the other end of the ice. Eventually Kapanen got back on the bench which allowed play to continue to set up one of the more iconic goals in the organization’s history with Roenick’s series-ending snipe past Ed Belfour.
Philadelphia’s last roadblock before the Stanley Cup Final did just enough to put an end to their run, as the Tampa Bay Lightning needed a one-goal Game 7 win to edge their way to the Final. Of course that Game 7 wouldn’t have been possible at all if it wasn’t for Primeau’s miraculous game-tying goal with only 1:49 left in regulation before Gagne won it in overtime.
The only team with six 20-goal scorers in 2003-04, the Lightning had two of the league’s 20 30-goal scorers (Martin St. Louis finished tied for fourth in the NHL with 38 goals and Vincent Lecavalier was actually good at one time which helped him finish tied for 12th with 32) and Fredrik Modin’s 29 gave the Bolts three of the 22 skaters across the league to reach that plateau. St. Louis’ 2003-04 season earned him the Hart Trophy and Art Ross Trophy as he led the league with 94 points in 82 games. Another one of the 20-goal scorers from that team was Cory Stillman, who recorded 25 goals and 55 apples for 80 points to finish tied with Daniel Alfredsson for seventh in scoring across the league. Brad Richards, who finished ninth in regular-season scoring and led postseason scoring with 26 points to win the Conn Smythe that postseason, and Dave Andreychuk, the NHL’s all-time leader in power-play goals at the moment, were two of the other 20-goal scorers on that roster. These types of numbers don’t always mean postseason success, especially for the Lightning, but with that type of offensive firepower with Dan Boyle and Pavel Kubina on the blue line in front of Nikolai Khabibulin (who posted a .933 save percentage over 23 games during the 2004 playoffs) it’s safe to say the Orange and Black didn’t bow out to a bunch of losers.
We know how the series ended, but to just say the Flyers were beaten by the Lightning wouldn’t give that loss enough credit. There’s no denying that the 2003-04 Lightning were a deep, talented team. That’s why they only endured seven losses during the 2004 postseason, three of which came in the Stanley Cup Final and another three coming in the Eastern Conference Final against the Flyers. The Bolts’ worst loss of that postseason was Game 2 of the ECF, where they got hammered by the Orange and Black 6-2.
One four-goal win in the Eastern Conference Final for a team that didn’t even reach the Stanley Cup Final isn’t the only reason the 2003-04 Flyers may be the best team in franchise history to not win it all. It’s the fact the Flyers managed to hang in that series while needing to do things like put a speedy forward like Kapanen on the blue line for a game due to injuries and still being in the conversation for the best that never was. They had more depth than the 1996-97 team and they weren’t a team running purely off emotion like the 2009-10 team. The 2010-11 club showed that the 2010 postseason wasn’t a fluke, but they also failed to piece together a complete season similar to the 2009-10 team.
The 2003-04 Flyers went into that season with expectations, won a divisional title during the regular season, ended one dynasty in the opening round of the playoffs, and denied the league’s favorite team from going all the way in their ‘all in’ season during the second round. Even though they didn’t beat the eventual Stanley Cup champs, they pushed them to the brink of elimination which is something the other two Flyers’ teams can’t claim.