Philadelphia battle back from the brink

Back in September, before the start of the NHL regular season, there was a lot to like about the Philadelphia Flyers.

Back in September, before the start of the NHL regular season, there was a lot to like about the Philadelphia Flyers. They were big and fast, skilled and tough. They had as much power and depth as any team in the NHL. And they could play it any way you wanted - old-school rough and tumble, or with free-flowing finesse. They had two top-notch scoring lines, and energy and intimidation on the third and fourth units.

The captain Mike Richards and the goal-scoring Jeff Carter were set to centre the top two lines, teaming up with such talented wingers as Simon Gagne, Daniel Briere, Scott Hartnell and Claude Giroux. The rookie power forward James van Riemsdyk was ready to prove his worth, while Arron Asham, Daniel Carcillo and Ian Laperriere were programmed to hit anything that moved. The blueline featured stud defenceman Chris Pronger and all-around Kimmo Timonen, along with power play quarterback Matt Carle and big-hitter Braydon Coburn.

The Flyers looked so good, in fact, The Hockey News made Philadelphia their pre-season pick to win the Stanley Cup. The off-season addition of Pronger, with minimal subtraction from a star-laden line-up, was seen as the final piece of the Flyers' championship puzzle. Pronger carried an underdog Edmonton team to the Cup final in 2006, then led Anaheim to Stanley Cup supremacy in 2007. And, simply put, the Flyers team that Pronger joined in summer were stronger than the '06 Oilers or '07 Ducks.

Granted, the goaltending was a bit of a question mark, as the Flyers gambled on Ray Emery as their No 1. Emery was returning to the NHL after a year in Russia, where he played in the KHL after wearing out his welcome in Ottawa. The fact remained, though, that Emery backstopped the Senators to the 2007 cup final - where they lost to Pronger's Ducks - so it was not like the prodigal puckstopper was an unproven commodity.

In the early going, the Flyers played like a team destined for big things. They went 12-5-1 through 18 games, vying for the lead in the Eastern Conference, and seemed to be hitting on all cylinders. Then it fell apart, so quickly and violently that you had to wonder what was going on inside the dressing room. The Flyers lost eight times in nine games, including being shut out in back-to-back contests by Atlanta and Vancouver.

The coach John Stevens was sacked following the loss to the Canucks, and the Flyers welcomed new bench boss Peter Laviolette by getting beaten 8-2 by Washington. They won their next game, but then managed just one more victory in their next seven outings. In all, Philadelphia endured a 3-13-1 tail-spin that sent the team tumbling to near the bottom of the standings and, even worse, threatened to tear the club apart.

The Flyers, with the potential to be one of the NHL's very best, were playing an increasingly individual game, to the detriment of all. "We weren't playing together," said Pronger. "But we're starting to play more like a team again." Indeed, the Flyers slowly turned it around. A four-game winning streak, a step backwards with a pair of losses, then two more wins. From languishing in 13th place in the East, the Flyers battled their way back to play-off relevance. And with eight of 10 games at home to close out January, the completion of the climb back to respectability seems to be at hand.

Will the mid-season swoon fully galvanise the Flyers? We will have to wait and see. But one of the NHL's best teams - on paper, anyway - now knows they have the wherewithal to come back from the brink.