BUFFALO -- Once again, Philadelphia coach Peter Laviolette pushed the right buttons for his team. As a result, Philadelphia once again has control of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series against the Sabres.
Facing the biggest decision so far in the series, Laviolette opted to insert backup Brian Boucher as the starter for Game 3 and scratched Sergei Bobrovsky, who started the first two games. Michael Leighton, the hero of Philadelphia's run to the Stanley Cup Final last season, served as Boucher's backup.
The veteran goalie responded to Laviolette's confidence by making 35 saves to allow Philadelphia to escape with a 4-2 victory in Game 3, a result that gives the Flyers a 2-1 lead in this best-of-seven series.
"When you win, everybody looks brilliant," said veteran Philadelphia defenseman Sean O’Donnell.
While that may be true, there is no denying that Boucher and Nikolay Zherdev -- inserted into the lineup by Laviolette when Andreas Nodl was a no-go for Game 3 – had perhaps the biggest contributions in the win.
Boucher stopped all 11 shots he faced in the third period and was especially sharp during a 5-on-3 kill that stretched across 1:45 early in the third period.
"Especially in the third period, (Boucher) just settled things down for us," Laviolette said.
Boucher, who was the No. 1 goalie at the start of last year's playoff run before he was injured, says he is grateful for the trust his coach has in him and the opportunity it earned him Monday night.
"I believe in myself," Boucher said. "I knew that I put in a lot of work this year to have a good season. I know there may be questions from the outside, but from myself I feel I can do the job and I'm happy to be given the chance."
Monday's victory is Philadelphia's first playoff win in Buffalo in it past six tries. In the previous five trips to Western New York, the Flyers had been outscored by a combined 26-7. Game 3 also marks the first time Philadelphia has won back-to-back games since defenseman Chris Pronger was injured, a run of mediocrity that has stretched past a month.
Pronger, who has a broken right hand, skated with the Flyers in Monday's morning skate, but remains day-to-day for the Flyers.
The teams meet again Wednesday night here in Game 4, in a game that suddenly is of huge importance to the Sabres, who do not even want to contemplate falling into a two-game hole in the series heading back to the Wells Fargo Center.
The Sabres felt they played a good game Monday, outshooting the visitors by a 37-26 margin and out-hitting them by an almost two-to-one margin, but they were not rewarded for their efforts.
"The results aren't good enough," Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff said. "These guys have battled hard for me and they will keep battling hard."
Buffalo came out flying in their first home playoff game of 2011. But, Boucher blunted some of the crowd's enthusiasm by stopping 15 of 16 shots in the first period while his teammates could only manage 6 on Buffalo's Ryan Miller.
The 16 shots were the most Buffalo has managed in a period in this series.
So, Boucher's brilliance allowed Philadelphia to get into the intermission with a 1-1 tie as the teams traded power-play goals.
Jeff Carter scored at the 4:42 mark, only to see Stafford tie it a little more than seven minutes later.
Philadelphia came out in the second period like a different team and dominated for much of the 20 minutes, getting goals from Danny Briere, the ex-Sabre, and Zherdev, who potted the game-winning goal and earned first-star honors.
"Z's been a player that stepped up most when we needed him throughout the season," Flyers captain Mike Richards said. "He's stepped up in situations that are tough. He always seems to find the net when he gets back into the lineup and you could see the jump that he had tonight."
Nathan Gerbe made it 3-2 late in the third period before Kimmo Timonen added an empty netter for the final margin.
However, it was the first 17 minutes of the second – before Gerbe's fight-back goal, that proved to be the difference as Philadelphia pounced on a couple of Buffalo mistakes.
On the Briere goal, defenseman Chris Butler whiffed when he tried to sweep the puck away from the side of Miller's net. Instead, Hartnell claimed the loose puck and shoveled a pass to the on-rushing Briere for a deadly one-timer. Meanwhile, Zherdev was left all alone to the left of Miller when defenseman Jordan Leopold – in his first game back from a broken hand – lost track of the Flyer forward and left him unattended for the tap-in.
"There might have been a few minutes (in the second) where we got away from what we wanted to do," said Miller, who had 23 saves. "It was only a couple of minutes, but it ended up being the difference tonight."