|Brian Boucher split time during the second half of his rookie season with veteran John Vanbiesbrouck. (click for photo gallery)
Brian Boucher understands what Flyers rookie goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky is going through this season. Now a mentor to the youngster, it wasn’t all that long ago that Boucher himself was a hotshot 23-year-old rookie goalie who had been anointed the Flyers goaltender of both the immediate and long-term future. Although his career has had its share of ups and downs ever since, Boucher could hardly have dreamed up a better start to his NHL career than his rookie season of 1999-2000.
Boucher, the Flyers first-round pick in the 1995 NHL Entry Draft, arrived on the big club after a two-year AHL apprenticeship with the Phantoms, with whom he split time in goal with Neil Little. Upon his arrival in the NHL, Boucher was installed as the backup to aging veteran John Vanbiesbrouck.
By midseason, however, the rookie was getting regular playing time and, by the playoffs, he was the club’s undisputed number one goaltender. He proceeded to stage one of the most memorable playoff runs of any Flyers goaltender since the young Ron Hextall. The Flyers fell one win short of reaching the Stanley Cup Final, but their seven-game loss to the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference Final had little to do with Boucher.
“What I remember the most looking back at that season was how helpful Beezer [Vanbiesbrouck] was to me,” Boucher says today. “He helped me with the mental parts of playing goal in this league apart from the mechanical side – my focus, my preparation, things like that.”
The season itself went by like blur for the rookie. Things happened fast, and before he knew it, the torch had been passed from Vanbiesbrouck to himself sooner than anyone initially anticipated. Brimming with self-confidence that bordered on brashness, Boucher played as though he was impervious to the pressure.
“Back then, I didn’t really stop and analyze the things around me. Was I surprised [about being tabbed the starter as a rookie]? Maybe a little bit, but I was confident and I had high expectations for myself. I think I gained more appreciation for the difficulty factor as I got older. When you’re young, you really just care about playing,” Boucher says.
Boucher played sparingly early in the 1999-2000 season, starting just two games in October and three in November for coach Roger Neilson’s team. He had a rough introduction to the NHL in his debut, yielding five goals on 22 shots in a 5-4 overtime loss on home ice to the Montreal Canadiens on Oct. 14, 1999. But he settled in quickly thereafter, reeling off wins in his next five starts while allowing a combined 9 goals.
The rookie began to play more regularly in mid-to-late December, appearing in five games (four staring appearances). In January, he made six appearances (five starts). The next month, he made six starts and won five games. At that point, Boucher became the Flyers regular starter.
Boucher made a combined 13 starts during the March to April stretch drive of the regular season, winning eight times including three shutouts. Subsequently named to the NHL All-Rookie team, Boucher finished the regular season was a sparkling 1.91 goals against average, .918 save percentage and four shutouts in 35 games. Vanbiesbrouck started 50 games, posting a 2.20 goals against average and .906 save percentage.
“There was a lot of stuff going on around the team that year, good and bad,” recalls former Flyers defenseman Chris Therien. “Boosh was definitely one of the good things.”
The Flyers finished the 1999-2000 regular season campaign with 105 points, good for first place in both the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference. On home ice, the club was a stellar 25-9 with 7 ties. But it was a tumultuous season. Eric Lindros struggled with concussions and had a falling out with the organization. Defenseman Eric Desjardins was named the new captain. Meanwhile, the popular Neilson was diagnosed with cancer and gave way to assistant coach Craig Ramsay while undergoing chemotherapy. Ramsay steered the club through its playoff run.
In the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, the Flyers drew Dominik Hasek’s Buffalo Sabres. Boucher outdueled the perennial Vezina Trophy candidate in what proved to be a five-game series.
In the opener, Boucher (20 saves) kept the game at 2-2 until Simon Gagne scored the game winner on the power play at the 5:33 mark of the third period. In Game 2, Buffalo took a 1-0 lead into the first intermission. The Flyers tied the game in the middle period on a highly controversial John LeClair goal. Replays showed that the puck went into the net through the side of cage, going through a gap in the netting rather than crossing the goal line itself. Desjardins staked the Flyers to a 2-1 lead on the power play early in the third period, and Boucher (30 saves) took care of the rest.
The scene shifted to Buffalo for Game 3. Boucher and the defense made a first-period LeClair power play goal (scored the conventional way this time) stand up the rest of the way. Mark Recchi tacked on an empty-net goal in the final minute of play and the rookie closed out a 17-save shutout. The Sabres avoided a sweep by taking a 3-2 overtime decision in Game 4, but the Flyers closed out the series on home ice in the next game behind 20 saves from Boucher and three power play goals (one from LeClair, two from Daymond Langkow) en route to a 5-2 win.
The Flyers drew the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round of the playoffs. The Pens stunned Philly on their home ice in the first two games, taking 2-0 and 4-1 victories back with them to the Igloo. That made the next two games in Pittsburgh must-wins for Philly. Fortunately, the team’s young goalie and the rest of the squad were up to the challenge.
“A lot of people had us counted out already, but we felt like if we could just get on track and start playing our game again, we’d be OK,” says Therien. “I know that take-it-one-game-at-a-time thing is a cliché but that’s how we looked at it.”
The next two games in Pittsburgh proved to be anything but easy. In Game 3, the Flyers were unable to protect leads of 2-0 after the first period, and went off tied by the end of the middle stanza. A 3-2 Philadelphia lead with 12:33 remaining in the third period also evaporated, as Jaromir Jagr
tallied his second goal of the game with 5:32 left on the clock. As a result, the game went to overtime, despite the Flyers controlling the majority of the play. Finally, at the 11:01 mark, defenseman Andy Delmore beat Ron Tugnutt with the Flyers’ 44th shot of the game, making a winner of Boucher (15 saves).
Game 4 of the Flyers-Penguins series proved to be one of the most famous matches in NHL history, as the clubs waged war through three regulation periods and five grueling overtime segments. Philadelphia generated 72 shots on the game to 58 by the Penguins. Beaten by Alexei Kovalev just 2:22 into the opening period, Boucher was flawless the rest of the way. The Flyers trailed heading into the third period but a LeClair power play tally drew them even and eventually sent the game to overtime – but not until a video review upheld the call on the ice that LeClair had not played the puck with a high stick.
|Flyers captain Keith Primeau scored in the fifth OT to give the Flyers new life in their semifinals series vs. Pittsburgh. |
The teams traded chances and momentum swings from one overtime session to the next but neither Boucher nor Tugnutt gave an inch. At long last, Keith Primeau fired a picturesque shot from the right circle to beat Tugnutt just under the crossbar and bring the game to an end at 12:01 of the fifth overtime.
“Everyone was exhausted. What I remember about that game was just trying to stay loose and hydrated. We all encouraged each other and the game just went on and on,” said Boucher. “When you’re a young player, you feel like you can play all night, but that was pretty crazy. Obviously, that was the game that swung the series for us.”
Losing the five-OT game cut the heart out of the Penguins. The Flyers romped in Game 5, giving Boucher plenty of goal support. Delmore registered a hat trick, and Philly built leads of 4-0 and 5-1 en route to a 6-3 win. Boucher turned back 29 of 32 shots. In Game 6, Boucher guarded a 2-0 lead until the midway point of the third period when Rene Corbet narrowed the gap to one goal. The rookie slammed the door thereafter, closing out the series with a 27-save performance and earning second-star honors for the game.
In the Eastern Conference Final, the Flyers matched up with another archrival: the New Jersey Devils. As in the Buffalo series, Boucher found himself matched up against a future Hall of Fame goaltender: in this case, Martin Brodeur.
“I’ve never looked at it as goalie against goalie. It’s always team against team,” said Boucher.
The Flyers and Devils split the first two games in Philadelphia, with the Devils taking the opener, 4-1, and the Flyers answering back in Game 2, 4-3. Boucher turned aside 30 shots to preserve the narrow victory.
|Boucher's greatest save of his career came in the Eastern Conference Final vs. Patrik Elias |
Games 3 and 4 were held at the Meadowlands. In Game 3, the Flyers built a 2-1 lead in the first period on goals by Mark Recchi and Keith Jones. The Devils put a major scare into Philadelphia early in the second period, as longtime Flyer-killer Patrik Elias broke loose on a shorthanded breakaway up the right wing. Cutting left against Boucher, Elias appeared to have the goalie beaten, only for Boucher to twist behind himself and throw his glove out to deflect the puck to safety, losing his mask in the process.
The play still stands as the single most famous save of Boucher’s career. To this day, his former teammates still marvel at the play.
“That was just one of those highlight reel moments that you can watch over and over again. What else can you say?” said Therien.
With their lead still intact, the Flyers went on to add an insurance goal by Rick Tocchet later in the second period. In the third period, Scott Niedermayer and Gagne traded tallies as the Flyers went on to win, 4-2.
Boucher, who made 27 saves on the night, was named first star of the game.
Two nights later, Boucher took second-star honors as the Flyers built a commanding three games to one lead in the series. The game was tied, 1-1, until the 12:58 mark of the third period. Philadelphia got a goal from an unlikely source: enforcer Craig Berube. Gagne tacked on an extra goal a few minutes later, and Boucher’s 24 saves backstopped the Flyers to a 3-1 win.
Unfortunately, the rest of the series unfolded in nightmarish fashion for the Flyers. New Jersey cruised to a 4-1 win in Philadelphia in Game 5. Two nights later, Lindros returned to the Flyers lineup for the first time since March 12. Early in the game, Boucher made another memorable – and rather frightening – save as a shot got lodged in the bars of his mask near his eyes. The goaltender pushed his mask off and held his face momentarily, but was OK.
The game remained scoreless through two and a half periods. A would-be Lindros goal was waved off because it was shot in the net about a half-second after the period clock hit zero. Finally, at the 11:26 mark of the third period, Claude Lemieux broke the scoreless tie. Five minutes later, Alexander Mogilny scored what proved to be an important insurance goal.
Lindros scored one that counted with 29 seconds left in regulation but the team was unable to find the equalizer. Boucher made 24 saves in the 2-1 defeat.
Game 7 in Philadelphia was another nail-biter that ended up going New Jersey’s way. Best remember for a heavy hit by Scott Stevens in the first period that knocked Lindros out of the game in what proved to be his final game in orange and black, the contest went to the third period very much up for grabs.
Elias and Tocchet traded power play goals in the first and second stanzas and the game remained tied, 1-1, until there was just 2:32 left in regulation. Elias scored his second goal of the game, and the Flyers’ last desperate push fell short. In the Stanley Cup Final, the Devils went on to defeat Ken Hitchcock’s Dallas Stars in six games to capture their second championship in five years.
Boucher, who faced just 18 shots in the final game, finished the postseason with a 2.03 goals against average and .918 save percentage in 1,183 minutes of intense hockey. But the widespread praise he earned for his role in leading the club to the brink of the Stanley Cup Final was scant comfort.
“Right to the end of the last game, we felt like we could win, so it was really disappointing for things to end that way,” said Boucher.
With the hindsight of a decade, however, it is much easier to reflect on the magic ride through two and three-quarters playoff rounds through which a rookie goalie led the club. Boucher’s performance in the 2000 playoffs still stands as one of the best sustained runs of goaltending excellence in team playoff history – surpassed only by Bernie Parent in 1974 and 1975, Pelle Lindbergh in 1985 and Ron Hextall in 1987.
“I don’t think there’s any question that we wouldn’t have gotten nearly as far as we did if not for the way Brian Boucher played,” says Jones. “If you go back and watch some of those games in the playoffs, especially the ones in Pittsburgh, it’s pretty clear that he gave us outstanding goaltending when we needed it the most.”