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In the end, surprising Flyers leave Philly's fans feeling empty


PHILADELPHIA -- When the Flyers finally ran out of Lazarus acts on a run that featured more escapes than a cliffhanger serial, and Patrick Kane's overtime goal silenced the airhorns, trumpets and vuvuzelas that electrified Wednesday's record-breaking Wachovia Center crowd, order was finally restored to a postseason that paid merely occasional lip service to notions of logic and conventional wisdom.

Then came one final thunderous chant of "Let's go Flyers!" that cascaded from the upper tiers down to the ice as the Blackhawks aligned to receive the Stanley Cup. With that parting expression of Philadelphia defiance, the curtain fell on one of the more extraordinary playoff runs in sports history.

The Blackhawks overwhelmed and ultimately outclassed the Flyers in Game 6 to capture their first title in 49 years. In the process, the 'Hawks earned the first and only road victory of a crackerjack Stanley Cup Final between two of the sport's hallmark franchises. It was a throwback matchup, with no team from hockey's lore-deprived Sun Belt in sight. And the gripping theater of the series -- five of the six games were one-goal affairs going into the last minute of regulation -- belied the chasm in quality between the opponents. Only Philadelphia's redoubtable siege mentality kept the Flyers in contention with Chicago's lightning-quick bluebloods. Instead of recoiling from the pressure, the Flyers seemed to perform their best when they were hard against it.

If sports in Philadelphia is a civic religion, where loyalty is absolute and obsession the norm, the Flyers have always been the best-supported denomination for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health -- the team's rock-steady season-ticket subscription rate is a testament to one of the country's most devoted and least flippant fan bases.

But for Sam Lehr, a 28-year-old Penn law grad and lifelong Philly resident who has owned a pair of seats in Section 207A for the past 10 years, it was too soon to appreciate the feel-good sheen of the Flyers' historic run. He confessed that the acid memory of Wednesday's squandered opportunity could take years to get beyond.

"Surreal," said Lehr, who estimated that he attended more than 40 home games this season, including the playoffs. "It's fun while it lasts but then as soon as it's over, you look back on it and you're like, 'We almost had this.'"

Lehr wasn't alone: Local sports talk radio lines were jammed by hand-wringers and second-guessers through the night and into the dawn. But just as many were quick to celebrate this team's legacy of bravery and persistence in the face of impossible odds.

Look back at the constellation of fantastic, preposterous events that carried the Flyers to within two wins of an unlikely championship and you'll discover a resiliency so absurd it makes the third act of Rocky look like cinéma vérité.

Who could have envisioned a charmed 54-day postseason run back in December when Philadelphia dropped 14 of 17 games and dipped to 14th in the 15-team Eastern Conference? When fourth-year coach John Stevens was given the sack following back-to-back shutout losses? When internal dissent threatened to tear the locker room asunder? When they went through goalkeepers one after another like Kleenex?

Entering a de facto one-game playoff against the Rangers on the final day of the regular season, just about every name on the roster could be described as either an underachiever (Scott Hartnell, Simon Gagne) or a castway (Ville Leino, Michael Leighton). Down 1-0 with 13 minutes left in their season, opportunistic defenseman Matt Carle tied the game and the Flyers outwitted Henrik Lundqvist in a shootout to punch their playoff ticket. The victory lifted Philly's win-loss percentage for the season to .500.

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The mountain really came to Muhammed once the playoffs began, when a unit held together by duct tape with enough injuries to fill a M*A*S*H unit embarked on an underdog story too sensational for Michael Bay and too incredible for Walt Disney:

The Flyers beat a Devils team so uncharacteristically out of sorts that its coach, Jacques Lemaire, quit three days after the playoffs. The top three seeds went down in the first round. Philly managed to sidestep perilous matchups with Alex Ovechkin's Presidents' Trophy-winning Capitals and Sidney Crosby's defending Cup champion Penguins courtesy of eighth-seeded Montreal's heavy lifting. The Flyers ultimately eliminated three of their biggest rivals -- New York, New Jersey and Boston -- the latter after rallying from a three-games-to-none series deficit (and a 3-0 hole in Game 7) to secure unprecedented home-ice advantage in the Eastern Conference Finals as a No. 7 seed.

"It's like the cosmos came together to bail us out of our underachieving season to have us just go [out] in the finals," said Lehr of the team's primrose path to the championship series. "It's so typical of watching the Flyers."

Even Wednesday, buoyed by a record crowd of 20,327, Philadelphia rallied from deficits of 1-0 and 3-2 to force overtime on Hartnell's equalizer with less than four minutes left in regulation. Despite one of their worst performances of the series, the Flyers did not go gently. They could not.

In the immediate aftermath, it's hard to say where these Flyers will rank in Philadelphia folklore. They've been a huge story here, but not quite a transcendent event like, say, the 1993 Phillies or 2001 Sixers. Surely they'd be a bigger national story if half the games weren't contested in the triple-digit ghetto of most cable boxes. Unlike recent title challenges by the Phillies or Eagles, this Flyers run lacked an extended emotional build-up. It was found money almost from the jump, offering Philly's trademark fatalism a welcome holiday.

Like any team with an inspirational playoff run that falls short of the ultimate goal, the Flyers' legacy is tenuous. The cost of defeat may be immortality -- how many players can the average fan name from the 1975 Islanders? -- but these players won't be soon forgotten here.

There was Jeff Carter, playing out of position with two broken feet. Leino, the salary dump from the Red Wings' salvage heap whose creative influence proved critical, paid off with the franchise rookie mark for points in a postseason. Chris Pronger, the veteran hard man, entered the Philly pantheon of cult heroes. Leighton, the team's seventh goaltender of the season was nabbed for an $11,250 waiver claim from Carolina, may have given up a few howlers in between a league-best three playoff shutouts but he still possessed the keen ability to block out the negative and move on to the next play. ("He had a lot of practice at it," Lehr wryly notes.)

Chicago's Cup-clincher dropped the Flyers to 5-1 in elimination games -- or 6-1 if you count last Wednesday's must-win Game 3. On paper, Philly loved these Flyers because they persevered and pulled off the unexpected against their biggest rivals. But many closest to the team aren't buying. The Blackhawks were just vulnerable enough to lose and the Flyers couldn't take advantage.

"We completely underachieved all season, but at the same time I'm pretty sure Barry Melrose picked the Blackhawks over the Flyers for the Stanley Cup in September," Lehr said. "So it's like this whole totally bizarre underachieving season with this incredible playoff run ends up ending exactly the way we thought it was going to end at the beginning of the year.

"Just so typical."

Only in Philadelphia, after two months of unabashed optimism, can negativity seem like a long lost friend.