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Flyers never gave up after countless adversity

by Mike G. Morreale
PHILADELPHIA -- The Flyers and their rabid fans held out hope to the bitter end. But in the end, the better team won.
To a man, that's what every Flyers player admitted following their disheartening 4-3 overtime loss to the Chicago Blackhawks in the series-clinching sixth game of the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday night.
But for the "Orange Crush" that packed the house at the Wachovia Center, memories of the 2009-10 season will linger for quite some time -- guaranteed. Their Flyers came that close.
"We battled for a month and a-half to get to this point and to get so close, yet so far, it's going to hurt for a while," forward Jeff Carter said.
When asked just how much the loss hurt, a dejected captain Mike Richards replied, "a lot."
The Blackhawks celebrated their first Stanley Cup since 1961, while the Flyers went home empty for the 35th-straight year. The thing is, the Flyers couldn't really do much more -- they squared the game at 3-3  on Scott Hartnell's goal with 3:59 left in regulation, but couldn't get the winner.
The Flyers were in must-win mode the second half of the season, and not until they notched an exhilarating shootout decision over the New York Rangers on the final day of the regular season did they even qualify for the playoffs.
"This loss was one of the hardest things I've ever had to go through," Richards said. "We went through a lot this year as a group and I can't analyze the whole season right now, but we've been through a lot and gone through a lot together. When you go through stuff like that, it brings the group closer together."
The Flyers put their fans on an emotional roller coaster, full of ups and downs and twists and turns that were well-documented. But all those things would dissipate once the playoffs began.
"I think when you go through something together as a group, you learn a lot about your team, a lot about your players, what they're made of," coach Peter 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're a resilient group. I think we grew through adversity and I think that became a strength of ours."

They rallied to become the third team in League history to overcome a 0-3 series deficit against the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, but fell short of becoming the third team to rally and win the Cup after losing the first two games on the road.

"I hope there are many years to go where we get this far or even farther," said Danny Briere, who set a franchise playoff record and led all postseason scorers with 30 points. "It's tough to appreciate everything we went through and it'll take a few days at least to get over getting this far and coming up empty-handed. But I'm still proud of teammates and the way we battled in the second half of the season … the last surge and clinching in a shootout. I'm going to remember this group of guys for a long time, but it's going to take some time to get over this loss."

Not once throughout these playoffs did Laviolette ever take credit for getting a team that finished 18th in the overall standings through three rounds and into the Final. He always praised his players, saying they were the ones who deserved all the ink.

A coaching change, countless injuries, rumors of locker-room turmoil or even a five-man goalie carousel couldn't keep this group down. Heck, the club even sat 14th in the Eastern Conference at one point.

They fed off the energy of their championship-starved city, going 9-2 in the playoffs at the WachoviaCenter. Along the way, Ian Laperriere gave new meaning to the word "sacrifice," taking a shot to the forehead in the first round and returning 10 games later after recovering from a brain contusion. Simon Gagne and Jeff Carter each underwent right-foot surgery on April 23, but returned to provide an offensive spark.

They sacrificed about as much as you could without actually donating body parts. Gagne scored seven times in his first eight games back and Carter connected for two goals in his first two games. Rookie Ville Leino tied the League record for playoff points by a rookie, while Briere set the franchise single-season mark for playoff points. There was the top-four defensive group led by veteran Chris Pronger, and the tale of a journeyman goalie turned-overnight-sensation in Michael Leighton, who matched Hall of Famer Bernie Parent's team record for shutouts in a playoff series with three -- all against Montreal in the Eastern Conference Final.

It was Leighton, however, who took blame for Patrick Kane's goal 4:06 into overtime that sealed the deal in Game 6 of the Final. It's a goal that will no doubt haunt Leighton all summer.

"(Kane) just kind of walked out of the corner and there was a guy driving the net so I kind of cheated a little bit," Leighton said. "He took the shot, put it on net and put it right under my pad … it went right under me.

"I was kind of wondering if it was in but I knew I was done. Obviously, it's tough to swallow. It's something you dream for your whole life and you get there it ends like that, it's tough."

The effort even made believers out of their opponent.

"Philly was an unbelievable competitor because they came back from a lot of stuff," Blackhawks forward John Madden said. "My hat goes off to them because they never quit."

"They're a really good team, they're very well-coached," Kane said. "A lot of offense. That was probably the best we've seen all year, where they had three really good lines that were pretty scary. So I think we're pretty fortunate to come away with winning this series."

Then there was this message from Conn Smythe Trophy-winner Jonathan Toews to Richards, his Canadian Olympic Team teammate in February.

"(Mike Richards) played like a champion, and he's obviously an incredible guy, an incredible leader," the Chicago captain said. "It's tough for anybody to come this close, and looking at the comeback they had against Boston and the injuries they had over the year, I think he was obviously right in the middle of all that adversity and helped that team battle through that. You have to give him a lot of credit for what he did. They were a tough team and a great competitor."

Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale

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