FLYERS’ WIN CAPS SEASON: NOW IT’S THE CAPS IN THE PLAYOFFS

By Peter Gleason

This was the kind of day it was for the Flyers yesterday at the Wells.

Not exactly win or go home.

But win or win tonight against the Islanders in order to complete their improbably run toward the playoffs.

Forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare’s empty-net goal propelled the Flyers into the Stanley Cup playoffs from center ice.

The Wells Fargo Center crowd went from unnerved to unhinged, and it occurred to Bellemare that “nobody was going to [catch] me this time,” he said.

So a few steps from the crease, he let the puck slide from his stick, punctuating the Flyers’ 3-1 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins yesterday and setting off a celebration that felt more like liberation.

Fans threw their rally towels onto the ice. Players swarmed goalie Steve Mason and hugged anyone in sight. Coach Dave Hakstol simply shook Bellemare’s hand. After months of playing catch-up in the standings, they could all finally exhale.

“A big sigh of relief,” center Ryan White said. “It’s been a grind. It feels like we’ve been playing playoff hockey for at least two months now.”

It took the Flyers until their regular season home finale to clinch the eighth seed in the NHL’s Eastern Conference playoffs and set up a first-round matchup with the Washington Capitals, and the differing paths the two teams took to get to this point were there for all to see.

While Washington coasted into the postseason by winning the Presidents’ Trophy and played a meaningless game at St. Louis on Saturday night, the Flyers overcame the assumption that it was in rebuilding mode with a months-long sprint that ended with a win over the league’s hottest team.

The Flyers passed over four teams in the standings during the final 22 games of the regular season, going 13-3-2 during one stretch that included last month’s 2-1 shootout win against the Capitals. But then they lost three straight games over the past six days, and suddenly “you kind of start to wonder if you’re going to make it, or you’re good enough to make it,” forward Claude Giroux said .

This is why Hakstol conceded that Saturday became the most emotional afternoon of the year, and it began with each individual member of the Flyers deciding whether to avoid the television screen in the corner of their locker room or keep an eye on the action in two other games that would help determine their fate.

Once Detroit and Boston lost to the Rangers and Senators, respectively, the path to a Stanley Cup playoff berth was clear before the puck dropped in Philly: Win, and the Flyers were in.

When the Penguins — who had won eight straight — elected to rest star center Sidney Crosby and top defenseman Kris Letang with their own playoff position secure, and then lost goalie Matthew Murray to a head injury in the first period, it seemed like this might just be the Flyers’ day. But all of these factors ultimately caused early jitters, and Pittsburgh grabbed a 1-0 lead when forward Nick Bonino scored 11 minutes 57 seconds into the game.

“We were just kind of nervous. We knew the other two teams had lost,” Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds said. “Everyone had two cups of coffee too much or something.”

Simmonds calmed everybody down, tying the score with 1:03 left in the first period on the first shot Penguins backup goalie Jeff Zatkoff faced seconds after a sprawling save by Mason. Simmonds then polished off a dominating second-period performance by the Flyers when he tipped in a wrist shot from defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere for his second goal of the game.

Philadelphia wouldn’t relinquish the lead from there, although the third period featured two stagnant power plays that could have eased the pressure in the building. But after months spent clawing just to get into the playoffs, these Flyers are used to drama.

“It’s not like we just had a good run for 10 or 15 games. We feel like we’ve been a good team consistently since Christmas time,” Hakstol said. “We’ve been pushing hard, put a lot into it, and this is one of the rewards for the guys.”

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