One of the great appeals of sports is, just when you think you’ve seen it all, along comes something totally unique.
We take you now to the Flyers-Buffalo playoff series. I’ve covered hockey for a long time: this series ranks up there with the all-time most dramatic.
Who would’ve thought a team could win a seven-game Stanley Cup playoff series using three goaltenders? Sergei Bobrovsky
lost the series opener 1-0. In the next game he yielded three goals in the first period and was banished to the press box. “Your seat is over here, Bob. Can we get you a soda?” He finally reappeared as Brian Boucher’s backup in Game 7.
Think the Flyers goaltending situation was surreal? Buffalo’s Ryan Miller won two games 1-0, but gave up 16 goals in the other five games. Bizarre.
From the Flyers standpoint, the series will be remembered for the superb performances of Danny Briere
, James van Riemsdyk
and Claude Giroux
, plus the reliable shot stopping of Brian Boucher.
Briere was the leading goal scorer in the series, tormenting his former team with six goals. He always seemed to be in the right position. One of Briere’s many attributes is his willingness, for a little guy, to patrol the “dirty zone” near the opposing goaltender. He also delivers more than his share of body checks.
During the series Briere spent almost as much time on his butt as on his skates. The referees didn’t seem to notice that was Briere was getting punched, shoved and slashed.
“What’s impressive about Danny is that he has taken a lot of punishment in this series,” Flyers coach Peter Laviolette said. “There are big guys that can’t hack 81 games, and I’m not knocking anybody.”
Briere, one of the most quotable Flyers, surprised his teammates and Laviolette by speaking up before the third period in Game 6. With the Flyers trailing 4-3 in Buffalo, Briere said it wasn’t time for the Flyers season to end. Midway in the third period linemate Scott Hartnell
tied the score. Then an overtime goal by Ville Leino, another Briere linemate, won the game, setting up Game 7 in Philadelphia.
Talking about Briere, van Riemsdyk said, “It seems like every time the game gets bigger, he plays better.”
Van Riemsdyk blossomed in the series. When “JVR” had the puck all eyes were on him as he maneuvered into position to shoot. Van Riemsdyk’s 43 shots on goal were by far the most vs. the Sabres. His four goals were runner-up to Briere’s six.
“He’s grown a pair of rear wings,” said Flyers television analyst Bill Clement.
“We showed a lot of guts and resiliency throughout the whole series,” van Riemsdyk said. “You have to respect a lot of those (Buffalo) guys. They played hard the whole series.”
Giroux excelled at both ends of the ice. When Giroux has the puck he is a mesmerizing presence on the ice because we can’t wait to see what he does. He led the Flyers in scoring with nine points (eight assists). Giroux seems to enjoy setting up teammates for scoring chances as much as he likes scoring goals.
Boucher’s goaltending, whether it was a solid job in Game 7 or a rescue role after the starter faltered, has made him popular with teammates and fans.
“Resilient is an understatement for him,” captain Mike Richards said. “He came off the bench in two of the games and made a ton of huge saves at times we needed him to.”
The number of elite goaltenders in the NHL are few: Henrik Lundqvist, Marc-Andre Fleury, Ryan Miller, Tim Thomas and Roberto Luongo are the only goalies who come to mind. While Boucher is not on that short list, that doesn’t mean the Flyers cannot win the Stanley Cup with “Boosh” in the nets. Rookie Antti Niemi was Chicago’s goalie last year when the Blackhawks won the Cup.
Referring to Boucher’s success in a relief role, Laviolette said, “He’s certainly proven that he has the mental toughness to handle that. He really seems to thrive in those situations.”
Against Boston in the Eastern Conference semifinals, we’ll see how Boucher handles the stress of a starter. At age 34, Boucher believes he’s a better and smarter goaltender than he was earlier in his career.
“When you’re younger,” Boucher said, “it’s hard to look at the big picture and put things in perspective. You let your emotions get the best of you sometimes, but I’ve had to deal with adversity a lot during my career, and somehow I keep sticking around.” A few more observations:
* When Laviolette selected Michael Leighton as the Flyers starting goalie in Game 6, I was stunned. Leighton was an important part of the Flyers surge to the Stanley Cup finals last year. But he had played in only one regular season NHL game this season. If the Flyers had dropped the series to seventh-seeded Buffalo, Laviolette’s choice of Leighton in Game 6 would’ve been criticized for a long time.
* Until late in the series I thought the Sabres played with more swagger than the Flyers. The Sabres initiated much of the physical contact, especially after whistles. To the Flyers credit, they showed remarkable restraint.
* The Flyers must improve their power play if they expect more success in the playoffs. Chris Pronger
’s return to the lineup is a power-play plus. Buffalo blocked a lot of Flyers shots and frequently cut off the shooting lanes.
* * *Please note that the views expressed in this column are not necessarily the views expressed by the Philadelphia Flyers Hockey Club.
Bill Fleischman is a veteran Philadelphia Daily News sportswriter. He was the Flyers' beat reporter for the Daily News in the 1970s, and continued to cover games in later years. A former president of the Professional Hockey Writers and the Philadelphia Sports Writers Associations, Fleischman is co-author of "Bernie, Bernie," the autobiography of Bernie Parent. Fleischman also is co-author of "The Unauthorized NASCAR Fan Guide." Since 1982, he was an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware journalism program.
He is a graduate of Germantown High School and Gettysburg College.