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Flyers' coach Laviolette stands tall in defeat

by John McGourty
PHILADELPHIA --  This wasn't the ending that Philadelphia Flyers coach Peter Laviolette was hoping for. In fact, it was an ending he wasn't even sure about after Patrick Kane beat Flyers goalie Michael Leighton with a bad-angled shot at 4:06 of overtime in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final to give the Chicago Blackhawks their first championship since 1961.

"I haven't seen it yet," Laviolette said 20 minutes after the game ended and after he had addressed his team behind closed doors in their dressing room. "I didn't see the goal. Things happened quick. It came in off the angle. I saw one of their players (Kane) skate across the ice like he had won something. I got a little pit in my stomach. But I didn't know it went in. I haven't seen it."

It certainly wasn't the ending that most hockey fans were expecting after the Flyers, preseason favorites to win the Eastern Conference, dipped to 29th place in the NHL in early December. Laviolette replaced John Stevens as coach on Dec. 4, but the team accelerated its tailspin in his first 10 games, going 3-7.

Goalie Ray Emery left the team to have abdominal surgery the next day and the Flyers picked up goalie Michael Leighton off waivers to back up Brian Boucher, who struggled when given the starting job. Just as Boucher was finding his best form, he suffered a crushed finger from a shot during practice and underwent surgery.

Leighton replaced him and the team did well -- the Flyers had the second-best record in the NHL from mid-December until mid-March, when Leighton and goal-scoring leader Jeff Carter were injured. They were only four points out of first place in the Atlantic Division, but the loss of those two players plus other injuries led to another rough spell.

So rough that the Flyers needed to win a shootout in the final game of the season against the New York Rangers -- with Boucher stopping Olli Jokinen on the final shot -- just to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Flyers made short work of the New Jersey Devils in the first round, winning in five games. But they lost the first three games of their second-round series against the Boston Bruins before rallying to win the final four games, erasing a 3-0 deficit in Game 7. Then they beat the Montreal Canadiens in five games to advance to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since they were swept by the Detroit Red Wings in 1997.

The Flyers lost a pair of one-goal games in Chicago to open the Final, then won Game 3 in Philadelphia in overtime and played their best offensive game of the series in Game 4, winning 5-3. They played their worst game in the Final in Game 5 in Chicago, losing 7-4, and gave up the first goal in Game 6 before bouncing back with Scott Hartnell's goal late in the first period.

The Blackhawks outscored them 2-1 in the second period and held their 3-2 lead until Hartnell scored his second goal of the game at 16:01 of the third period to force overtime, but not before Carter was stopped by Niemi on a point-blank shot with 1:28 left in regulation. Simon Gagne and Claude Giroux were denied by Niemi in the first minute of overtime.

"I thought down the stretch, in regulation and overtime, we played probably our best of the night," Laviolette said. "It seemed like we were attacking. Like maybe we had started to wear them down and we were able to get some looks offensively. We had some really good opportunities. We weren't able to cash in."

Laviolette challenged his team before Game 3 to put more pressure on Niemi, and they did in Games 3 and 4. But the rookie goaltender bounced back with two great performances. Laviolette graciously praised the 26-year-old Finn.

"He was very good. He's been good throughout the entire playoffs," Laviolette said. "For a young kid to come in and be able to do that, to grab hold. I know (the No. 1 goaltender job) moved back and forth for Chicago through the regular season. He grabbed hold of it down the stretch and was very strong for them in the playoffs.

"He's quick low. Late in the game we had some opportunities. He's very quick side to side low. Those are opportunities you like to see go in the back of the net. He came up with big saves. So you have to give him credit."

The Blackhawks surely played through injuries -- all teams do at this point of the season -- but the Flyers had a remarkable number, and many players performed heroically despite playing in pain.

Carter played with two broken feet in the playoffs. Gagne underwent an unusual surgical procedure on his broken foot in order to return during the playoffs. Leighton returned from a high-ankle sprain before his due date. Daniel Carcillo tried to play on an injured knee. Boucher was hurt in the Boston series and was thought out for the season but he returned. Ryan Parent's back problems finally forced him out of the lineup. Emery returned in January but soon suffered a season-ending hip injury.

"I think when you go through something together as a group, you know, you learn a lot about your team, a lot about your players, what they're made of," Laviolette said. "I'm proud of the guys for giving themselves an opportunity to compete for the Cup. It's going to sting for a while. It hurts right now.

"But they never quit. They are a resilient group. I think we grew through adversity. I think our team became a strength of ours. And I'm proud of the way they competed and the way they fought."

"I think when you go through something together as a group, you know, you learn a lot about your team, a lot about your players, what they're made of.  I'm proud of the guys for giving themselves an opportunity to compete for the Cup. It's going to sting for a while. It hurts right now." -- Peter Laviolette
Laviolette bounced back as well. Two years after winning the Stanley Cup with the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes, Laviolette was fired. Out of hockey, he was living with his family on an island in Florida when he got the call from Flyers General Manager Paul Holmgren in December. When asked about his own personal odyssey this season, Laviolette demurred.

"It's not really about me. I'm fortunate to be in such a great organization," he said. "I'm thankful for Paul Holmgren for giving me the opportunity to be able to coach the Philadelphia Flyers for (Flyers President) Mr. (Ed) Snider. I'm a fortunate person."

But his players responded well to his coaching and came to believe in the way they were being instructed.

"He was great. I think the system he brought in really complemented our team," Carter said. "Apart from the hockey thing, he's an all-around good person. Mood in the room light and always happy and giving the guys shots here and there. He keeps the room light and everyone on their toes."

Laviolette went through a lot this season. So did the Flyers. They faced elimination six times since the final game of the season. The ending was a bitter disappointment, but he didn't forget to give the champion Blackhawks their due.

"I would like to congratulate them. They had a terrific season," Laviolette said. "They had a terrific playoff run, and they played well in the Final. They're a strong offensive team. They're as fast defensively as they are offensively. And it was challenging.

"I don't think they got to this point and went through the teams that they went through by chance. They have a good game. It's attacking offensively. It's tough defensively to penetrate. We didn't get as many looks as we would like. They're a tight defensive team. I mean, they're fast both ways. They deserve credit for their season, their playoffs and for being Stanley Cup champions."

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