One season after finishing with the NHL’s worst record, the Philadelphia Flyers
are headed for the Eastern Conference final.
Scottie Upshall’s deflection with 3:04 remaining broke a tie and the Flyers beat the Montreal Canadiens 6-4 on Saturday night for a five-game victory in their Eastern semifinal series. Mike Knuble added an empty-netter to earn the Flyers a berth against either Pittsburgh or the New York Rangers in the conference final. The Penguins can make it an All-Pennsylvania series with a win at home on Sunday.
“It was 4-1, but it was a lot closer than that,” Flyers coach John Stevens said of the series, in which the Flyers won four straight after losing the opener in overtime. “Montreal had a great year. We feel fortunate to be moving on.”
R.J. Umberger celebrated his 26th birthday with two goals and an assist. He finished the series with eight goals and scored at least once in every game.
“It’s the best present I had,” he said.
The Flyers scored three times in less than three minutes late in the second period to turn a 3-1 deficit into a 4-3 lead. Philadelphia got help from some shaky goaltending by Montreal rookie Carey Price on goals by Mike Richards, Umberger and Scott Hartnell.
Canadiens coach Guy Carbonneau went back to Price after using Jaroslav Halak in Game 4 — and it didn’t work. Price stopped a couple of breakaways, but struggled in the final minutes of the middle period when the Canadiens let the Flyers back into the game.
“It’s probably the toughest moment of my career so far,” Price said. “I don’t like losing one bit. It’s tough to swallow that one.”
Added Carbonneau: “We did what we had to do early. We crashed the net, we had some traffic in front of Biron. We were able to get some rebounds. We had the lead 3-1, and everything fell.”
Andrei Kostitsyn’s goal early in the third period tied the game at 4-4, and both teams had chances to go ahead before Upshall, stationed to the left of Price, tipped Jeff Carter’s long slap shot out of the air and into the net.
“There’s time in the game where you find yourself in front of the net,” Upshall said of his goal. “I thought Carter made a great move spinning around and throwing a great shot on net. Fortunately, I had my stick below the crossbar.”
Stevens was proud of his team’s comeback.
“We got down 3-1 and that second goal was big for us,” he said. “We really started to mount an attack there. We got the lead and they came right back and scored, but I just had this sense that we weren’t going to go away. Montreal hadn’t lost four games (in a row) all year. We knew it was going to be tough. It was just a great team effort. It’s pretty rewarding for us to see our players that excited.”
Knuble’s empty-netter finished off the Canadiens, who had enjoyed their best season since 1992. Montreal finished atop the East for the first time in 16 years and broke the 100-point mark for the first time since 1993, the last time the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup. It was a terrific season for a team that was coming off a non-playoff season and was expected to be lucky merely to make postseason play.
“We’ve come a long way since September. I said in September that we had a team to make the playoffs, and we did,” Carbonneau said. “We’ve learned from it. Now, we’ve got to go that next step and become not only a team that can make the playoffs and have some success, but be a contender.”
The Flyers became only the second team ever to go from last in the overall standings to the conference final the next season. Detroit was last in the 21-team League in 1985-86, then made the Western final in 1987. But the Wings did it despite not breaking .500 during the regular season. The Flyers were sixth in the East with 95 points in 82 games.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling,” Umberger said. “We’re in the semis. I can’t wait.”
The sellout crowd of 21,273 was revved up from the start, and got even louder after Montreal got a power play just 2:43 into the game when Patrick Thoresen was called for hooking. Instead, Philadelphia got the game’s first big opportunity when Richards stole the puck and burst past the defense. But Price got his right pad down to block the shot, and Mark Streit, who gave away the puck, got back and blocked Umberger’s rebound try.
The Canadiens then capitalized at 4:29 when Tomas Plekanec got a piece of Patrice Brisebois’ slap shot from the right point and deflected it past Martin Biron. It was the first time in the series that the Canadiens scored the opening goal of the game.
Brisebois was the culprit at 10:20 when the Flyers tied the game on a great individual effort by Umberger, the Flyers’ hottest shooter. Brisebois coughed up the puck at the Philadelphia blue line and Umberger came down on a 2-on-1. Price stopped his original shot, but Umberger made an acrobatic play to get a piece of his stick on the rebound and deflect it into the net for his seventh goal of the series.
“He was a possessed man,” Stevens said of Umberger. “We moved him around, and he didn’t even bat an eye. He just wanted to play. He’s just been a force. He kills penalties, he checks. He’s really matured as a pro. It’s great to see.”
Montreal came right back and took the lead at 11:28 when Maxim Lapierre came out from behind the net and tried a wraparound that hit Alex Kovalev’s skate and deflected past Biron. The Canadiens nearly made it 3-1 with 6½ minutes left when a turnover in the Philadelphia zone gave Sergei Kostitsyn a wide-open chance in the slot, but Biron got his glove on the shot and Kostitsyn ripped the rebound wide.
Montreal survived Philadelphia’s first power play when Kovalev was called for hooking at 15:04 and finished the period ahead by a goal — the first time the Canadiens led after 20 minutes in the series.
The Canadiens took their first two-goal lead in the series at 8:15 of the second period when Christopher Higgins finished off a 3-on-2 rush by firing a wrist shot from just above the left dot that went past Biron’s glove.
Philadelphia had a great chance to get back in the game when Mike Komisarek was called for elbowing at 8:31 and Price was called for holding 65 seconds later, giving the Flyers a two-man advantage for 55 seconds. Price made a superb stop just as the 5-on-3 advantage was expiring when he robbed Daniel Briere at the left post, then stopped him again on a wrist shot after Briere corralled the loose puck.
But the Flyers kept buzzing, and were rewarded at 14:02 when Umberger’s shot from the left point whizzed past Richards, who reached for it with his glove, apparently to knock it down, but had it deflect off him into the top corner past Price’s glove. A lengthy review confirmed that Richards didn’t deliberately direct the puck into the net with his glove, and the goal stood.
Umberger got the Flyers even at 15:44 with his eighth of the series on a poor play by Price and defenseman Roman Hamrlik. Price didn’t catch Derian Hatcher’s nondescript wrist shot cleanly and the puck went off his glove and behind the net. Umberger outworked Hamrlik for the puck as it came off the end boards and swept it past Price, who was late to the post, for his ninth of the playoffs and eighth of the series.
A quiet Bell Centre got even quieter when Hartnell’s blast from the top of the left circle beat Price at the 17-minute mark. Hartnell skated down the left side unimpeded and blasted a slap shot that went past the rookie goaltender’s glove and pinged the inside of the far post before going into the net, giving the Flyers the lead after two periods.
But the Canadiens regrouped at intermission and needed just 2:13 to tie the score when Andrei Kostitsyn took Plekanec’s drop pass in the high slot, used defenseman Kimmo Timonen as a screen and ripped a wrist shot over Biron’s glove.
Price redeemed himself, at least temporarily, when he kept the game tied by stopping Briere’s breakaway with 8:40 left in regulation. Briere outraced the Canadiens’ defense from the red line and tried to deke the rookie, but Price kept his pad down and prevented him from ticking the puck inside the right post.
Montreal got a power play with seven minutes remaining when Flyers captain Jason Smith was penalized for elbowing. Though the Canadiens controlled the puck for most of the two minutes, the Flyers kept them to the outside. Guillaume Latendresse had a chance with just under 4½ minutes left when he deked past Hatcher and was alone in the slot, but he drilled his wrist shot off the crossbar.
Upshall’s goal about 90 seconds later broke the tie.
The victory was extra special for Briere and Biron, two French-Canadians who grew up watching the Habs.
“It’s very special,” said Briere, who signed a big free-agent contract with the Flyers last summer. “I grew up a Montreal Canadiens fan, so it’s even sweeter. I always wanted to experience what it was to play a playoff series against Montreal. To win on top of it — that’s just the icing on the cake.”
Added Biron: “To beat Montreal is something special, but it’s even more special the way we did it. We showed some heart throughout the whole series, but especially tonight.”
Material from wire services and team and league broadcast media was used in this report.