In sports, we all love a good Cinderella story. From magical runs in college basketball’s March Madness, to dethroning expected champions (ahem, 41-33), these teams capture the hearts of the public. They often find themselves re-writing the script on their seasons to fulfill what seemed like an impossible dream, making it a reality.
As played out as this can be at times (the series of sweeps in the Eastern Conference starting with Tampa felt anything but magical), the stories of improbable success will always be easy to tell and as such... welcome to Underdogs Week at SB Nation!
We’ll be looking at instances in Flyers history where they pulled out all the rabbits from their theoretical hats and defied the odds to claim victory. In the first of these looks into history, we’ll be discussing the Flyers’ best playoff upsets, which means, as always, lists! This was a lot harder of a list to come up with than I had originally anticipated, since I can only vividly remember three of the five series, and can remember just how massively the Flyers were expected to lose, whereas for the older ones, I’m mainly working off of what others have said on the events. Note that the list isn’t meant to be a definitive ranking, and just represents the order in which I chose to write about them.
Flyers vs Bruins - 2010
This one just had to be here. It would be criminal not to talk about the 2009-2010 Bruins series, which is one of the best comebacks by any team in the history of sports. Before this series, only two other NHL teams had come back from such a gargantuan deficit in a playoff series, the last being in 1975 when the Islanders did it against the Penguins.
In the first three games, the Flyers were put to the sword by Miroslav Satan, Patrice Bergeron, and Mark Recchi (seriously he played a long time) and found themselves needing an overtime winner from Simon Gagne in Game 4 to keep themselves alive.
Fast forward and the Flyers are yet again down 3-0, this time in the seventh game of the series. James van Riemsdyk would get the Flyers on the board, and eventually, a flukey near impossible wrap around goal from Danny Briere tied the game. Simon Gagne then scored the winner of the power play to the effect of stunned silence from the Boston crowd, which was music to my ears. I’ve included the NHL YouTube channel’s quick recap of the game below, and honestly, it serves as a near complete microcosm of that entire series.
Simply staggering stuff.
Flyers vs Bruins - 1974
We’ll continue with the theme of beating the Bruins, and why not, because here’s where the Flyers won their first ever Stanley Cup!
After defeating the New York Rangers to reach their first ever Cup Final, the Flyers were massive underdogs to the Bobby Orr - Phil Esposito led Bruins. Looking back at newspapers of the era, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s headline of “Miracle Flyers Take the Cup, and City Goes Wild with Joy” really captures just how improbable this victory was.
The Bruins took the first game at home, and looked to write the Flyers a death sentence early, though thanks to Bob Clarke’s overtime winner in game two, the series was tied at 1-1. His celebration of that goal remains an iconic image to this day.
At home, the Flyers won games three and four, and game five going away was won by Boston, who managed to stay alive. The ever so crucial game six would be held in Philadelphia, and the Bullies knew they needed to win since Boston would be sure to take the series at home.
This game was streamed a few weeks ago by NBCSP, and is also available here on youtube. Apologies since it’s the entire game, and is quite long.
In the end, the Flyers brought the first of their two championship wins back to Philadelphia and cemented themselves in the legend category permanently in the city.
Flyers vs Penguins - 2012
The Penguins entered this series as clear favorites, yet though perhaps looking at the rosters in this series, they really shouldn’t have been. Evgeni Malkin and James Neal carried them that season, as Sidney Crosby missed significant time due to injury. However, other than them, their team production can only be described as “overachieving”. The names Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis don’t scream dangerous to me.
Where the Penguins held the advantage was in goaltending. Marc-Andre Fleury, in 64 starts, had a 0.913% save percentage, with a 2.36 goals against average. Meanwhile, the Flyers’ Ilya Bryzgalov couldn’t stop a shot to save his life, and neither could Sergei Bobrovsky. Little did we know we were ever so close to the Flyers trading the future Vezina trophy winner.
This series is best known for the insane game three in which Claude Giroux set the tone by having his very own version of “the shift”, knocking Sidney Crosby to the ice and scoring a first minute goal. Brawling was heavily featured in this contest, and nobody will ever forget the coaches shouting at each other from the bench.
The Flyers beat the favored Penguins in six games largely thanks to the fact that Marc-Andre Fleury channeled his inner Bryzgalov and couldn’t stop anything. Though they would lose in the next round to the Devils, the Pittsburgh series remains one of the most memorable for Flyers fans, as it was the last time the Flyers won a playoff series (oof).
Flyers vs Capitals and Penguins - 1989
I was not alive for these series, but looking back at the facts, just that the Flyers were able to get to the Conference Finals against Montreal was quite the feat to accomplish, especially for a team on its last legs. Their talent from the 80’s was fading, and after this season, they’d miss the playoffs for five straight seasons until the Lindros era 1990’s teams would rise up. However, they still had one last year to try.
Firstly, the Flyers had to beat the Patrick Division Champions, the Washington Capitals. They had a number of great players, including hall of famers Mike Gartner and Scott Stevens, as well as Dale Hunter, Geoff Courtnall, and goaltender Clint Malarchuk. The Flyers had finished fourth in the division at 36-36-8, a mediocre record, however, regardless, they thrashed the Capitals and took the series in six games. Ron Hextall managed to score a goal in that series as well!
Next up were the Penguins, and it was perhaps even more impressive that the Flyers beat them. They managed to come back after two Penguins series leads to beat them in seven. The Flyers were led by Tim Kerr, who during the season had come back from a shoulder injury, and the likes of Rick Tochett, Brian Propp, Pelle Eklund, and Scott Melanby were relied upon to provide the offense. Regardless, they had to get through Mario Lemieux, who had his best season ever. On his own, he scored 199 points that season. The Penguins also featured 115 point winger Rob Brown and the hall of fame defenseman and future Flyer Paul Coffey, who scored 113 points. Oh the 80’s.
The clinching game seven is featured in full on youtube below, and features some great Mario Lemieux action. He scored in five of the seven games, including five goals in game five.
Dave Poulin scored the eventual winner for the Flyers as they went on to face the Canadiens, who would themselves lose to Calgary in the Stanley Cup Finals.
Flyers vs Capitals - 2008
Imagine beating one of the best teams in the NHL, eventually making it all the way to the Conference Final, after having the worst record in the league the previous year. That’s what the Flyers did in 2007-08.
I wrote about a theoretical scenario in which the Flyers completely rebuilt the team after their 2006-07 disaster of a season, but fortunately that’s not what actually happened in this case.
With a roster reinvigorated by the additions of Danny Briere, Scott Hartnell, and Kimmo Timonen, the Flyers managed to make the playoffs, claiming the sixth seed. They would have to face the Washington Capitals, led by 22 year old Alex Ovechkin. He had scored 65 goals in the regular season, and to this day hasn’t eclipsed the 112 points he totaled. The Capitals also boasted 38 year old Sergei Fedorov, and an upcoming Nicklas Backstrom.
The Flyers led the series 3-1, only for the Capitals to win two straight, forcing a game seven in the nation’s capital. In that particular game seven, the Capitals were the better team for the majority of the contest, and through three periods, the game was tied at two.
The Capitals then preceded to dominate the overtime period, however, their defenceman Tom Poti took a penalty, and Joffrey Lupul took care of the rest.
Yet again, a recap of the game (in a much shorter version) is featured below. That 2000’s youtube video quality gives me nostalgia.