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Development hand in hand with playoff hockey

by Patrick Williams | SLAM! Sports

Good luck trying to find an American city whose hockey fans are more angst-ridden than those in Philadelphia, where the big checks that Flyers general manager Bob Clarke dished out last summer amidst much hope now give way to grey gloom and doom, Philadelphia-style.

Tuesday night’s 7-1 loss at the hands of the Buffalo Sabres brought the Philadelphia Flyers’ season to a close, with Lindy Ruff‘s club closing out the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series in a rather tidy six games to move on to face the Ottawa Senators.

But playoff hockey is as much about teeth-gnashing, angst and consternation as it is about skating a Stanley Cup or a Calder Cup around the ice, and playoff disappointments are often a necessary if unpleasant stage in fully developing young talent and toughening it up for future playoff success.

Development and playoff hockey go hand in hand.

Philadelphia head coach Ken Hitchcock in his post-game press conference touched on a portion of the development process a bit and acknowledged that the brutal ending to the Flyers’ season would mean that special care would need to be taken to help guide his young core through these stormy waters.

"There are young players at stake here, there is a franchise with a lot of really, really good young players who had good experiences that need to be taken care of here."

For the Sabres, of course, the post-game discourse took a different tilt.

"This series, for us, was mostly about our youth, our energy, our will and our desire," Buffalo‘s Daniel Briere said. "We had fun. We had fun playing."

Yes, the Sabres are a rather young group, but those youngsters already have tasted their share of postseason bitterness. The difference is that the Sabres’ young core was able to muddle through playoff failures while they were still in the AHL with the Rochester Americans and under a far less harsh light. For the young Flyers, they will now have to handle their playoff setback amidst the brutal scrutiny of the Philadelphia fans and media corps.

Those former Amerks first tasted coming up short under playoff conditions back in 2004, when, after putting together a strong playoff run following just an 89-point season, the Amerks moved to the conference final. Once there, Randy Cunneyworth‘s Amerks promptly were mowed down in five games.

And then last season, for all of the talk surrounding Jason Spezza and the powerhouse Binghamton Senators, it was the Amerks who blitzed the AHL en route to an AHL-leading 112-point season.

But little good did those 112 points do the Amerks in the playoffs when they ran into a buzzsaw in the Manitoba Moose that vaporized them in another five-game series.

Start with Ryan Miller in net and continue with Derek Roy, Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville and Paul Gaustad, and those current Buffalo regulars all skated in last season’s ill-fated Calder Cup playoff run.

Postseason call-ups Rory Fitzpatrick, Daniel Paille, Nathan Paetsch, Chris Thorburn, Jeff Jillson, Michael Ryan and Doug Janik also were on that 2005 Amerks team.

Miller, Pominville and Roy also were among the major components of the 2004 Amerks that went to the conference final.

So these Sabres know playoff disappointment.

The corollary to the Sabres is the Flyers, who will now see a number of their youngsters taste bitter disappointment for the first time as pros. All some of them know, after all, is Calder Cup success.

Mike Richards and Jeff Carter both stepped into the pro game with the Philadelphia Phantoms and had a Calder Cup within about a month’s time. R.J. Umberger had a standout rookie pro season with the Phantoms last year.

Along with Freddy Meyer and Ben Eager, Antero Niittymaki went to the second round of the Calder Cup Playoffs in 2004 before putting together a Calder Cup MVP postseason last spring with the Phantoms.

Subsequently, this season much burden was placed upon those young shoulders, despite that group being a group of NHL rookies.

Now this Philadelphia group will be forced to confront failure.

If disappointment eventually begets success, what will follow success will be pressure.

The Sabres began the postseason as a relatively loose group, albeit one whose young core had sampled the bitter side of playoff hockey at the AHL level.

Said Briere, “We’re just so thrilled to be here. Nobody expected us to even make the playoffs at the beginning of the year."

But soon enough, the Sabres can expect the pressure around them to intensify, which is all just one more step in the maturation process of course.

Nonetheless, for his part, Briere would welcome some playoff pressure.

"Hopefully, one day, I’ll be on that side where the pressure is all on us to win, because that means that you have done a good job and you’re supposed to win."

Patrick Williams covers the AHL for SLAM! Sports and theahl.com