The 2015-2016 season was a rebuild year for the Philadelphia Flyers. Moves were made to improve the team over a long period of time, and there were no real expectations for the team to come close to making playoffs. By April, that story had changed. This is where our story begins.
Under a perfect storm of conditions, the Flyers could clinch the final wild card spot. One condition, a near requirement for the Flyers’ playoff hopes, was that the Boston Bruins lose at home in their final game of the season, to the Ottawa Senators of all teams. The Sens weren’t playoff contenders, and in the minds of many Flyers fans, the fact that their fate was left in Ottawa’s hands was a death sentence: why would Ottawa fight hard for a win in a game that didn’t matter to them?
By some grace of a benevolent hockey god, in the first of many miraculous Flyers-saving feats, the Ottawa Senators beat the Boston Bruins 6-1. With a win later that night against the longtime rival Pittsburgh Penguins, the Flyers would clinch the last wild card spot and be on their way to the playoffs. With a 3-1 victory, they did just that.
This was only the start of the ride.
The Flyers’ playoffs started with tragedy. Team founder Ed Snider passed away three days before the Flyers’ first playoff game in Washington D.C. against the Capitals, giving the orange guys just one more reason to play hard, fight hard, and win. After a moment of silence for Mr. Snider, the game began: the top seed Washington Capitals with Vezina-trophy-contender Braden Holtby in net, against the wild card Philadelphia Flyers and fan-adored Steve Mason tending goal.
By the end of the first period, the game was scoreless, better than most people (i.e. not Flyers fans) thought the Flyers would do, but that changed fast. In the second period, the Caps’ John Carlson scored a power play goal, and in the third, Jay Beagle tallied a point. The Flyers lost, and Braden Holtby recorded his first shutout of the 2015-2016 playoffs. Worse still, Sean Couturier, a Flyers centerman, had suffered a shoulder injury in game one and was likely to be out the rest of the series. The loss was tough, but the next game would be better! After all, they only had to win four to advance.
Spoiler alert: the next game wasn’t any better.
Well, it was on some fronts. It wasn’t a shutout, which was a marginal success, but the Flyers lost again, 1-4. But game three was back in Philly, and they’d definitely win at home ... right?
The game started off with a touching tribute to Ed Snider, and everyone in attendance was given a special wristband that lit up as part of the tribute. Later in the game, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare of the Flyers hit Dmitry Orlov of the Caps, sending Orlov headlong into the boards. Peb was ejected, but players on both teams got in a bit of a scuffle with each other. The Flyers were penalized; the Caps were not, and one fan, out of frustration, threw their bracelet at Dmitry Orlov’s head.
And then everyone threw their bracelet onto the ice in protest.
The Flyers announcer and players on both teams shouted into the stands, telling fans to stop throwing bracelets, in vain. Bracelets rained down from the stands one after another. The refs stepped in, telling fans that, if they did not stop, the Flyers would receive a delay of game penalty. Perhaps the fans didn’t believe the refs would go through with it, and perhaps they were just feeling testy. Either way, the Flyers were penalized again. Whether the fans stopped after that or just ran out of bracelets to throw, I don’t know, but the game continued, and the Caps steamrolled the Flyers for the third game in a row. The final score was 6-1.
The next game was make or break. A lot of hockey fans predicted that the Flyers would get swept, but did any of us (i.e. Flyers fans) want to believe it?
Flyers goalie Michal Neuvirth was given the start in net for game four, with Holtby still making saves for the Caps.
The orange guys started the game strong, with rookie defender Shayne Gostisbehere tallying a power play goal just over five minutes into the first period. Near the end of the first period, however, Washington’s John Carlson, the very same who scored a goal in game one, shoved Flyers centerman Scott Laughton into the boards head first, knocking out Laughts. The game came to a standstill.
Laughts was taken to a nearby hospital, and it was later found that he had—again, miraculously—not suffered a concussion.
In the second period, the Flyers scored a second goal, for the first time in the playoff series! They were up by two, and they were playing well! But there was still one more period of hockey to play, and the Capitals were determined to tie the game. Early in the third, the Caps’ T.J. Oshie scored, and Flyers fans were on the edges of their proverbial seats. Michal Neuvirth made killer save after killer save, and when time wound down to zero, the Flyers emerged victorious, avoiding the dreaded sweep. That was good enough for many Flyers fans: we made it to playoffs, and we didn’t get swept, in a rebuild year no less! It was amazing! Game five could have ended any way and Flyers fans would have been content.
But game five did not turn out how anyone expected.
We were back in Washington D.C. Neuvy and Holtby were still in net. The first period ended scoreless but with Neuvy facing—and saving—a lot more shots than Holtby, fourteen saves to Holtby’s six, to be exact. The second period saw this trend continue, but Ryan White, a Flyer, scored a goal. Technically, he bounced the puck off the skate of Capitals’ d-man Taylor Chorney, but nonetheless the score was 1-0, and Neuvy finished the second having made sixteen saves, one for every shot on goal. To recap, by the end of the second, Michal Neuvirth had made thirty saves. Braden Holtby had made eight, and had also allowed a goal.
At the end of the third period, Chris VandeVelde of the Flyers scored an empty net goal, giving the Flyers a two-point lead for the second time in the series. The final score was 2-0, and the Flyers won, but more interesting were the shot totals. The Washington Capitals made forty-four total shots on goal, but the Flyers?
Eleven shots the entire game.
Michal Neuvirth—dare I say miraculously—stopped all forty-four shots when Braden Holtby couldn’t even stop eleven. Personally, I theorize it was at this point that Holtby was no longer to be considered for the Vezina trophy.
The Flyers had cut the Caps’ series lead to 3-2, and game six was back in Philadelphia.
The final act of the Flyer’s playoff run begins with game six. The first period ended with a Capitals 5-on-3 power play, and also with Neuvirth, again, doing what he did best and stopping every. single. shot. Washington’s Niklas Backstrom scored the lone goal of period two, and, as Holtby had unfortunately begun to get his shit together, the lone goal of the game. The Capitals won their fourth game of the series and would move on to the next round of playoffs, and the Flyers were eliminated. But you know what?
The Philadelphia Flyers made it to playoffs despite the odds. They avoided the sweep despite the odds. They won a game with a -33 shot differential and brought the series back to Philadelphia for one last game. And perhaps most importantly of all, they did all of this in a rebuild year. This tenacity and fight is what makes the Flyers’ 2015-2016 playoff run a satisfying story for Flyers fans across the board. Even though our boy didn’t win, they pulled off some miraculous moves and miraculous wins.
Flyers hockey is only going up from here, and I can’t wait to see what they’ve got in store for the sequel.