(Newark, NJ) - It's been 10 years since Philadelphia Flyers veterans Brian Boucher and Simon Gagne were baptized as NHL rookies.
Ten years since they stood on the precipice of the Stanley Cup Final, only to be pushed off by Martin Brodeur, Patrik Elias and the rest of the 2000 New Jersey Devils.
Since then, the two former first-round draft picks of the Flyers have seen their careers go separate ways. Gagne, 30, went on to play in two NHL All-Star Games, won two Bobby Clarke Trophies as the Flyers' MVP and represented Canada in two Winter Olympics.
|Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Brian Boucher, upper right, eyes the puck as New Jersey Devils Patrik Elias, upper left, skates in during the third period of an NHL first-round playoff hockey game Wednesday, April 14, 2010, in Newark, N.J. The Flyers won 2-1. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun) |
Boucher, 33, stumbled under the weight of his own expectations, toiling for eight different teams in three different leagues before returning to the place he's always considered home.
Today, Boucher and Gagne find themselves together again, facing the same team that took away what they believe was rightfully theirs a decade ago.
"We all know 10 years ago what happened and I'm sure 'Boosh' has got that in the back of his mind," Gagne said before the Flyers faced the Devils in Game 1 of their opening-round series, a game Boucher won, 2-1, against Brodeur. "They beat us 10 years ago when Boosh was in the net and that could be a challenge for him."
A decade ago, Boucher was the NHL's hottest young goaltending prospect. He stole the starting job from veteran John Vanbiesbrouck by going 20-10-3 with a 1.91 goals-against average in the regular season and followed with a spectacular playoff run, going 11-7 with a 2.01 GAA through three rounds.
The 2000 Eastern Conference Finals will be remembered for many things: Boucher's spectacular, mask-jarring, back-bending save on Elias at the Meadowlands; Scott Gomez's blazing shot wedging itself in the eye hole of Boucher's mask; and Scott Stevens' career-altering shoulder on Eric Lindros.
But ask Gagne or Boucher what they remember moist about that series and you get the same response.
"Losing a 3-1 lead in the series," Gagne says.
"Being up 3-1 and not being able to close them out," says Boucher.
The Flyers lost Game 5 in Philadelphia and Game 6 in New Jersey in Lindros' first game back from a concussion. Elias won Game 7 by scoring with 2:32 remaining in regulation to send the Devils to the Stanley Cup Final, eventually winning the title.
Boucher signed a two-year contract extension the following summer, got off to a slow start in his second season with the Flyers, lost the starting job to Roman Cechmanek and was eventually traded to the Phoenix Coyotes for Michal Handzus and Robert Esche.
"When you have a rookie season like that it's a tough act to follow," Boucher said. "I was a young guy who didn't really have the experience and I put a lot of pressure on myself to want to be that good again and justify the contract I got.
"It's almost like you'd rather have a nice, steady progression than jump right to the top because it's hard. It takes a real special person to understand that same level of success can't be attained and you have to chill out a little bit if you don't get right back to where you were."
In the nine seasons since his stellar rookie year, Boucher has recorded a winning record just twice. His career appeared to be over following the 2006-07 season, when he went a combined 2-11-3 with a 3.34 GAA for the Blackhawks and Blue Jackets.
That's when Boucher, at the age of 30, swallowed his pride and signed a minor-league contract with the AHL Phantoms.
"My goal was to get back to the National Hockey League and coming back to the Phantoms was a calculated move," he said.
It paid off. Boucher went 23-16-1 with a 2.47 GAA for the Phantoms and when the San Jose Sharks needed a backup late that same season Boucher was ready, recording a shutout in his first game as a Shark.
He remained in San Jose last season and his 12-6-3 mark was enough to convince GM Paul Holmgren to sign him as a free agent again, this time as the Flyers' backup to Ray Emery.
Season-ending injuries to Emery and emergency backup Michael Leighton, along with a groin injury to apparent heir apparent Johan Backlund, left Boucher as the Flyers' only healthy goalie down the stretch.
And although he impressed no one by going 4-6-2 in his final 12 starts of the season, Boucher came through when the Flyers needed him most last Sunday, stopping two of three shootout attempts in a playoff-clinching 2-1 win over the Rangers.
I know I'm 33, but I still feel like I'm 23. Maybe it's my maturity level. Maybe the magic that happened that year can happen again." - Brian Boucher
And now, it's back to the future. Brodeur vs. Boucher, the 10-year Reunion.
At 33, Boucher said he may not have the elasticity to duplicate that sprawling highlight reel save on Elias in the 2000 conference finals, but he honestly believes he is a better goalie now than he was then.
"I always wanted to come back to Philly, I don't know why," he said. "It's a funny feeling you have, that I could get back to the situation I had in 2000. You don't know how many more situations you're going to have. Ten years is a long time.
"I know I'm 33, but I still feel like I'm 23. Maybe it's my maturity level. Maybe the magic that happened that year can happen again."