Better With Popcorn

Alumni Game is a reminder of Flyers goalie past


Only the Chicago Bears really understand what's going on in Philadelphia.

The National Football League's Bears have had 15 different starting quarterbacks since 1992. No other sports franchise recently has had one of the most important positions in its respective sport be in so much flux.

That is until the Philadelphia Flyers and their perennial problems in net get tossed into the discussion.

Since Ron Hextall was "the guy" in between the pipes, the goalie position has been a revolving door for the Flyers from 1999 until today. They are hopeful the big money they spent on Ilya Bryzgalov this off season finally pays off, putting a stopper on the door.

The alumni game this Saturday is a reminder of the Flyers lack of any consistent goaltending in the last 15 years. 

The Flyers have had two faces of their franchise in net for much of the time between 1967 and 1999: Bernie Parent and Hextall. But Parent’s age and Hextall’s bad back and knees led the Flyers to seek out two lesser known goalies to play in the Alumni Game.

Those guys are Mark Laforest and Neil Little, who played a combined 40 games in a Flyers sweater. In fact, the situation was so bad that Parent decided to lace up his skates for 15 more minutes. 

That right there is an indication of the goalie problems Philadelphia has had through its 45-year history. It wasn’t until recently that the lack of a true number one goalie in net has played a huge factor in a championship drought. And once Hextall retired in 1999, there is a list that every fan wants to forget about.

That list of starter-quality goaltenders included Roman Cechmanek, Robert Esche, Antero Nittymaki, Martin Biron, Ray Emery and Michael Leighton. Sure there are other names that go on that list but these are the goaltenders the franchise put its faith in to turn the ship around.

Goaltending has played a large part in the reason Philadelphia has gone without a hockey parade down Broad Street since 1975 and the fact the Flyers have only been a part of one Stanley Cup Final since losing to the Detroit Red Wings in 1997.

In 2000, after trading Brian Boucher to the Phoenix Coyotes for draft picks, Michael Handzus and Esche, the Flyers rolled with Cechmanek. Cechmanek put together phenomenal years in 2000-01 and 2002-03, winning 35 and 33 games respectively.

But the 2002-03 season was the last time Cechmanek would wear Flyers orange. 

After a brutal and physical seven-game series with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Philadelphia was matched up with the eventual Conference champion Ottawa Senators. The Senators outplayed the Flyers as Cechmanek was lit up in the final two games of the series.

Esche made his appearance during that post season and became the starter for the Flyers in the 2003-04 season. 

Esche’s play was nothing spectacular but he was very solid in his efforts to lead the Flyers to their first Eastern Conference Final since the infamous 1999-2000 Finals in which Eric Lindros was nearly decapitated.

The Flyers lost the Eastern Conference Finals in seven grueling games to the eventual champion Tampa Bay Lightning. But it wouldn’t be the end of Esche’s run in Philadelphia. Instead, the two seasons following the lock out would result in an ugly divorce with Esche.

In the 2005-06 season, Esche played his usual solid hockey to land the Flyers in the playoffs. But they were bounced in the first round to the Buffalo Sabres, which ended with an ugly 7-1 loss that saw Esche give up five goals before being yanked in favor of Nittymaki.

The poor showing from Esche and the Flyers carried into next season and Esche was slowly squashed out of the equation, giving way to the young Nittymaki.

The 2006-07 was also known as the worst Flyers season since the 1994-95 season. The Flyers finished with the worst record in hockey and saw their entire team have a makeover.

But despite the poor season, things were blown up. They traded a first round pick to Buffalo for Marty Biron because the Sabres had a young Ryan Miller waiting in the wings among other moves that saw them bring in quality offensive and defensive help.

Biron made an immediate impression for the Flyers during the 2007-08 season. He posted five shutouts en route to a 30-20-9 record and 2.59 goals against average.

Biron was great for the Flyers through the first two rounds of the playoffs but injuries to young defenseman Braydon Coburn and veteran Kimmo Timonen left the team vulnerable at the blueline to a white-hot Pittsburgh Penguins team in the Conference Finals.

The 2008-09 season was another strong showing for Biron but a first round exit to the eventual champion Penguins did the last Flyers established number one in.

That brings the journey to the 2009-10 season. The Flyers let Biron walk and signed troubled goaltender Ray Emery to a one-year deal as well as bringing back Boucher, who was coming off a great season in San Jose as a back-up. 

Emery was spectacular in the first month of the season before a serious hip injury ended his season and tenure with the Flyers. Filling in for Emery was Boucher, who was trying to keep the Flyers afloat heading into their Winter Classic meeting with the Boston Bruins.

But Boucher got hurt and the infamous goalie carousel began. Leighton emerged to lead the Flyers all the way into playoff contention. But as the seasons misfortunes proved, Leighton went down and Boucher had to lead the Flyers to a seventh-seed berth on the final day.

After clearing the New Jersey Devils in the first round, the Flyers played their infamous seven-game comeback series with Boston. Boucher was injured in Game 3 of the series and Leighton became the Flyers goalie for the remainder of the post season. 

The run started with a Game 4 win that sparked a comeback in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. 

But the magical run concluded with the Chicago Blackhawks star Patrick Kane slipping the puck through Leighton’s five-hole to end the season, forever tarnishing Leighton’s image in the eyes of the fans -- instead of his heroics they remember, it’s his inability to stop an easy shot to the net.

It was the only time the Flyers made it to the Stanley Cup Finals since 1997. They would get no closer the following season, which was last year.

Though rookie goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, who is now the back up this season to Bryzgalov, had a breakout season, it was the inability of the rookie, Boucher and Leighton to play any type of consistent hockey that led to head coach Peter Laviolette’s lack of faith in a netminder.

Their inconsistency also led to another thing: acquiring Bryzgalov this past off season in hopes to finally establish a true number one.

Parent and Hextall stand alone on top of a very short mountain that consists of a lot of mediocrity. For the sake of the city and the hopes of ending a title drought, room has been reserved on top of that mountain for one more.