- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 11, 2003

The Philadelphia Flyers were on the verge of their second Stanley Cup finals berth in four years in the spring of 2000. Philadelphia led New Jersey 3-1 in the Eastern Conference finals with Game 5 at home. But the Flyers managed just three goals during the rest of the series and lost to the eventual champion Devils.

"We just ran out of gas," said defenseman Eric Desjardins, then a co-captain.

Three years and three coaches later, the Flyers are still trying to overcome that defeat. Philadelphia won just three playoff games in its first-round losses the past two springs, scoring just three goals in five games against Ottawa last April. And even before that embarrassing ouster, there was a losing attitude in the Flyers' locker room.

Enter Ken Hitchcock, who coached Dallas to the 1999 title and a repeat trip to the finals in 2000. The upbeat Hitchock claimed that the Flyers who are fourth place in the East at 35-18-11-4 have put those bad memories behind them with a solid season.

"I don't know if I had to restore confidence as much as I did trust," Hitchcock said after yesterday's pregame skate at MCI Center. "Losing a series is one thing, but when you get beat pretty badly, there's a trust factor involved. [The] trust that the guy sitting next to you is going to get the job done has to be built. [Third-year goalie Roman Cechmanek] has his teammates' trust. They have each other's trust. They've had fun together all year. We don't have a problem with confidence. If anything, we have a tendency to get happy when things are going well and then, boom, we get spanked like we did against the Rangers [5-1 last Friday in New York]. There's wanting to win and hating to lose, and this is a team now that really hates to lose, and the only way you get that is through losing."

Despite a well-established winning tradition, the Flyers are well-acquainted with losing. They have lost in the first round in four of the past five years. They have had five coaches fired with winning records in less than six years, dating to the dismissal of Terry Murray after Philadelphia was swept by Detroit in the 1997 Cup finals. And they keep losing teammates. In a little more than three months, general manager Bobby Clarke has dealt five players and added 10, including right wing Tony Amonte, who was acquired yesterday from Phoenix.

Despite all the moves, the Flyers have stayed true to Hitchcock's defensive-oriented system, having allowed just 2.09 goals a game, tied for second in the NHL.

"If you're not committed defensively for the whole year, then your cracks usually come full-bore in the playoffs," Hitchcock said. "In Dallas, we had a real strong belief that if we stayed sound and structured, that we could make the other team crack."

When top young scorers Simon Gagne (groin) and Justin Williams (knee) joined veteran sniper John LeClair on the shelf in late January, it appeared the Flyers would crack. They went 1-4-1-1 in their first seven games without the offensive-minded trio, scoring just five goals and being shut out four times. But Philadelphia is 6-1-2-2 in its past 11 games without them, and all three should be back for the playoffs. LeClair's absence has hurt, but Gagne has just seven goals in 43 games and Williams just 37 in 2½ seasons. The only four teams with fewer goals than the Flyers' 159 which has them on pace for their fewest in a full season since 1968-69 are all out of contention.

"We're curious to see how we are when people start coming back," Hitchcock said. "But coming back is one thing, and being a significant player is another."

And the regular season is one thing and the playoffs are another. The Flyers will make their ninth straight postseason appearance next month, tops in the Eastern Conference, but they haven't skated with Lord Stanley's hardware since 1975, when Kate Smith was still belting out "God Bless America" at the Spectrum and Clarke was the team's curly haired star.

And no matter how well the defense and Cechmanek, second in the league with a 1.95 goals-against average, play, you can't win 0-0 … even in tight-checking playoff hockey.

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