The end is the beginning for Flyers

Flyers goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov lets in a goal by Devils defenceman Bryce Salvador (not shown)...

Flyers goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov lets in a goal by Devils defenceman Bryce Salvador (not shown) during Game 5 of their NHL Eastern Conference semifinal series at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Penn., May 8, 2012. (TIM SHAFFER/Reuters)

STEVE SIMMONS, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:47 AM ET

PHILADELPHIA - Jaromir Jagr stopped himself in mid-sentence, his lower lip beginning to quiver, his expression one of defeat and disappointment.

“This is a sad day for me,” Jagr said, his face contorting, trying hard to keep his emotions in check.

“I want to cry, man. This is probably the most enjoyable year I’ve ever had. I won some (Stanley) Cups. I won some trophies, but I loved this year. From the organization to the last player on the team and the fans, they were so nice to me. I hate to finish right now. That’s the worst feeling, you know. You finish the whole story, the whole year.”

The Philadelphia Flyers didn’t see this ending coming. Not after their first-round dominance of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Not after they played with so much emotion, so much desire, so much speed, and so much dominance. This contradiction of a season is over after five second-round Stanley Cup playoff games against a New Jersey Devils team they had no answer for. The Flyers showed so much good, overcoming the near season-long absense of Chris Pronger, overcoming the mid-season concussions of Daniel Briere and Claude Giroux, overcoming the dubious goaltending of Ilya Bryzgalov and overcoming the favoured Penguins, that in the end none of them saw this defeat coming in such an absolute form.

“We tried,” said Jagr, the NHL great who hasn’t committed to another season. “It wasn’t enough. You have to give them credit. I hate to say this but they were quicker and stronger than us, especially on the boards.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen (with me). It doesn’t really matter what’s going to happen.”

In the Philadelphia dressing room, there was really no talk of an opportunity lost. There was enough respect for the manner in which the Devils owned this series. But there was always acknowledgment of how far the Flyers came, how far they could have gone, and how this season will be looked upon as a mixed bag of so much development followed by a crushing ending.

“I wouldn’t say we underestimated them,” said Maxime Talbot, so large a factor in Round 1. “But they took the momentum and they never let up.”

This season was supposed to be a changing of the guard for the normally competitive Flyers. General manager Paul Holmgren did what few of his colleagues would have the stones to do. He traded away his captain and one of his leading scorers, choosing to take the team in a new direction. With the departure of Mike Richards and Jeff Carter -- who ironically are still alive in the playoffs as members of the Los Angeles Kings -- the Flyers' transformation was something special this season. When you factor in that Pronger was really a non-factor in a season -- and possibly a career -- lost to a concussion, Holmgren and the Flyers were starting out minus three of their most important players from a year ago.

They did that as Giroux emerged as a player who will be in Hart Trophy and Team Canada conversations for the next several years. Missing Giroux Tuesday night, the Flyers lacked much offence.

“You lose him, you lose a lot,” Jagr said.

They lost him for the game but have him for a very bright future. They got rid of Richards and Carter, as much for their deportment as for their play, and watched as Scott Hartnell had a career year and youngsters Wayne Simmonds and Jakub Voracek made contributions. The rookies, Sean Couturier, Matt Read and Brayden Schenn all look like fine players to build around for the future.

The Flyers are gone now, but will be back strong in the future. Even with Bryzgalov signed for eight more seasons and his goaltending forever in question. The second goal Tuesday night was a killer. But this is life with Bryzgalov. The unusual is expected. For all the Flyers' promise for the coming years, there is this odd place Bryzgalov holds. Can they win with him? Most would say no. But in this series, they didn’t lose because of him.

Coach Peter Laviolette walked into the Flyers dressing room following the defeat and searched for the right words to address his team. He couldn’t find them.

“It’s hard right now,” Laviolette said afterwards. “When you meet with the players after a season like this, it’s one of those speeches that you never seem to master.”

The speech he couldn’t master. But even in the raw emotion of sudden defeat, there was pride in his voice.

“I can tell you that in that room right now is a terrific group of men,” Laviolette said. “They played hard this year and gave a lot. We came up short. It’s a bright future and we’re looking forward to that. But tonight, it’s disappointing.”

steve.simmons@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/simmonssteve


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