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The Ride Continues

by Bill Fleischman / Philadelphia Flyers
Imagine a sports fan who left the country early last month, with no Internet, e-mail or cell phone access. Returning recently, the fan checks the NHL scores and sees “Flyers 6, Montreal 0.” Surely, the reaction would be, “Uh, big win, but I thought the NHL regular season ended in early April!”

Hard to believe, isn’t it? Here’s a Flyers team that needed a shootout goal and a final-shot save by Brian Boucher to even make the playoffs. Now the Flyers are hosting the Eastern Conference finals. The seventh-seeded Flyers have the home-ice advantage over eighth-seeded Montreal.

What in the name of Conn Smythe is going on here?

* * *
Anyone who saw the Flyers in the last week of the regular season would have trouble believing they could win a game in a playoff series, let alone a series. During the last week of the regular season, when I mentioned to an astute Flyers insider that they were a difficult team to get behind, he replied, “They don’t react well to adversity.”

Well, there was no greater adversity than trailing Boston 3-0 in the series and then 3-0 in the first period of the decisive Game 7. After dispatching the favored New Jersey Devils in five games, the Flyers staged the greatest comeback in Philadelphia sports history and became only the third NHL team to win a playoff series after rallying from a 3-0 deficit.
Philadelphia Flyers fans celebrate during the first period of the Flyers 6-0 shutout of the Montreal Candiens ion Game 1 of the NHL Eastern Conference finals in Philadelphia, PA, Sunday, May 16, 2010. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

When the Flyers fell behind 3-0 vs. Boston in Game 7, most teams couldn’t find a shovel big enough to dig out of such a hole, but the Flyers did it. The series-winner by Simon Gagne, on a power-play goal at 12:52 of the third period, developed when the Bruins where whistled for too many men on the ice. Veteran Marc Savard made the mistake of changing his mind and staying on the ice when he didn’t see another center jump on the ice.

The Bruins are a solid hockey team, but I didn’t think they were 3-0 better than the Flyers after three games. The series should’ve been 2-1 in Boston’s favor. Both teams are evenly matched. It just took the Flyers seven games to prove it.

(Full disclosure: I was attending a Germantown High mini-class reunion dinner the night of Game 7. I had committed to the dinner months earlier, never thinking the Flyers would still be playing in mid-May. During dinner I peeked a couple times at the Spring House Tavern TV. I saw the Flyers trailing 1-0 and 3-2. Until I listened to the end of the game on the radio on the ride home, I never knew the Flyers trailed 3-0).

When a team gets on a roll as the Flyers have, the best approach is to sit back, smile and appreciate it. It’s fun seeing Danny Briere, the Flyers’ little big man, thrive in the playoffs. His goal in Game 7 in Boston was his seventh in 12 playoff games.

Simon Gagne has returned from a broken toe as a goal-scoring sniper. Mike Richards and Chris Pronger have been reliable and productive leaders. Scott Hartnell and James van Riemsdyk are finally scoring. Ville Leino has stepped in as an offensive contributor. Michael Leighton has picked up where Brian Boucher left off after he was injured. (Memo to the NHL: you must do something about players running over vulnerable goaltenders). The Flyers list of difference makers goes on and on, etching this playoff year into Flyers history as one of the most memorable.

Following the historical victory in Game 7 in Boston, Briere said, “At some point, I just started thinking that it’s meant to be. I can’t explain it. I have been down 3-0 in a series before, but I have never had this feeling before.”

By the way, don’t overlook the guidance and direction that Briere has given Claude Giroux as a developing NHL star.

Said Richards: “We have been resilient all year. Whether it was injuries, or putting ourselves in a bad position in the standings. We have been through a lot together. Our mindset was, if you are going to go down, you are going to go down swinging.”

Acknowledging the Flyers “Relentless” slogan, Pronger said, “We’re never going to give up. We’re never going to count ourselves out. (We’re) relentless in our belief of what we can do if we set our minds to it.”

Added Hartnell, “We believe. Belief in our system, belief in the way we play, belief in ourselves as players. Now, there’s no telling what we can do.”

Coach Peter Laviolette, who has transformed the Flyers into a Cup contender, has brought out the best in the players leadership and commitment to winning.

Before Game 7, Laviolette said, “I feel we’re still here because of what’s in our room. A guy like Chris Pronger, not only has he proven it in the past, he’s proven it already here.

“Our team has been in survival mode. We’ve been fighting, and you don’t win those fights unless there’s a great type of people in the locker room. (There’s) Mike Richards. Danny Briere steps up. Chris Pronger plays his (many) minutes. Guys who have proven they can get there and handle the pressure of an elimination game.”

So, in just a few weeks, the Flyers have gone from a team that couldn’t handle adversity to a team that resists crumbling as well as any in NHL history. Go figure.

Despite the 6-0 rout of Montreal in the series opener, I don’t think any realistic Flyers fan thinks this will be a runaway series for the Flyers. Goaltender Jaroslav Halak was too good in the Canadiens upsets of Washington and Pittsburgh for him to disappear in this series. Mike Cammalleri has 12 playoff goals, Brian Gionta has seven. Scott Gomez, Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Kostitsyn are proven veterans.
In just a few weeks, the Flyers have gone from a team that couldn’t handle adversity to a team that resists crumbling as well as any in NHL history. Go figure."

Still, after the series opener, the Canadiens must be thinking about how the Flyers stormed back against Boston. Then, two nights later, they pitched a shutout against Montreal. The Canadiens must know the Flyers will be tough to conquer.

Over the years I’ve been guilty of over-analyzing players, teams and coaches as much as anyone. It’s what sports writers do. Sometimes, more frequently than we like, teams demolish our theories. As I’ve said, that’s why they play the games.

It’s been an eventful Flyers season: from the signing of Ray Emery and Chris Pronger, to questioning Mike Richards leadership, to Scott Hartnell’s inability put the puck in the Delaware River, to the remarkable goaltending runs of Brian Boucher and Michael Leighton…Something magical is going on here.

Let’s all enjoy the ride while it lasts.

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 has been an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware journalism program.

He is a graduate of Germantown High School and Gettysburg College.
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