– When Martin Biron
first arrived in Philadelphia last February, his new team was in the midst of the worst season in its history and was firmly entrenched in the League’s cellar.
“Last year I came here, and winning a game at the end of the year was just a big party and a lot of fun,” he said.
A year later, their standards have been raised significantly. One season removed from finishing with the worst record in the NHL, the Flyers are one win from reaching the Eastern Conference finals.
scored the go-ahead power-play goal with 3:38 left in regulation, and Biron delivered another stellar effort by stopping 36 of 38 shots as the Flyers took home a 4-2 victory over the Montreal Canadiens
in Game 4 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series.
scored twice and Scott Hartnell
also scored for the Flyers, who take a 3-1 series lead into Game 5 Saturday night in Montreal.
That the Flyers are anywhere near this point after where they were a season ago is remarkable. They finished the 2006-07 season with League-worst totals of 22 wins and 56 points.
The rebuilding effort actually started in October 2006, when Bob Clarke resigned as GM and was replaced by Paul Holmgren
, his long-time assistant. Holmgren then fired coach Ken Hitchcock and replaced him with John Stevens
, then a first-year NHL assistant who had spent the last six seasons coaching the Philadelphia Phantoms, the Flyers’ American Hockey League affiliate.
As the team bottomed out, Holmgren started looking to the future. Near the trade deadline, he moved Peter Forsberg to Nashville for forward Scottie Upshall, defenseman Ryan Parent and first- and third-round draft picks; he stole blossoming defenseman Braydon Coburn from Atlanta for veteran Alexei Zhitnik; and he sent a second-round draft pick to Buffalo for Biron.
Over the summer, he sent the first-round pick he got in the Forsberg deal back to Nashville for impending unrestricted free agents Hartnell and Kimmo Timonen and signed both to long-term contracts. On July 1, he signed Briere to a six-year contract, and traded Joni Pitkanen and Geoff Sanderson to Edmonton for Jason Smith and Joffrey Lupul.
There were questions about how all the newcomers would gel, but the answer can be seen in the result on the ice.
“It is a long way that we’ve came since last year,” center Mike Richards said. “I think that just shows what kind of people Homer (Holmgren) brought in. Not only good hockey players, but we’re having fun being together and this is probably one of the closest-knit groups I’ve ever been a part of. Last year was frustrating, but this year is just so much fun.”
Most of the fun has been supplied by Biron, the Flyers’ best player during the postseason. Although the Canadiens outshot the Flyers 38-26 — the fourth straight time the Flyers have been outshot — Philadelphia won for the third straight game.
“Marty has set a standard of play for himself that he’s able to consistently achieve,” Stevens said. “Until you have success this time of year, you really don’t know what your standard is. Marty has never been in this situation, he never had a reference point, and now he has a reference point that he can play at a very high level and be the difference in a hockey game, and he was tonight.”
Montreal coach Guy Carbonneau said Biron’s play reminded him of a certain French-Canadian goalie that he played with in Montreal — Patrick Roy.
“Biron is on top of his game right now,” Carbonneau said. “Whether he’s lucky or good or extremely good, he is making the saves and that is part of the hockey game. I’ve played with one guy that made those kind of saves that were silly sometimes, but we have to find a way.”
Carbonneau can only hope for that kind of play in his net. Jaroslav Halak was the surprise starter in Game 4, ahead of Carey Price. Halak had replaced Price for the third period in Game 3 Monday, and made 22 saves in his first career playoff start.
“I have to give him credit,” Carbonneau said of Halak. “He was good — obviously not good enough, but he is in a tough situation. He made some great saves really early and again, it seems to be a game of inches right now against us. They got a couple chances and they took advantage of it.”
The first chance came at 7:47 of the second period, when Umberger scored on the power play. He has scored the game’s first goal in three of the four games in the series.
Josh Gorges’ shot wide of the Flyers’ net allowed Briere to break out on a 3-on-2 with Umberger and Lupul. As Lupul went up the middle, Briere sent a cross-ice pas to Umberger at the right dot. Umberger, who had 13 goals in 74 regular-season games, snapped a wrister that beat Halak to the short side, between his blocker and the post. added an empty-net goal with two seconds left to give him six goals in this series and seven in 11 playoff games this year.
“R.J. has been terrific,” Stevens said. “R.J. deserves a lot of credit. R.J. is a man without a home. I move him all over the place and I do it for the good of the team. That’s what makes him so valuable. That’s what gives us three balanced scoring lines. … R.J. has really stepped it up, and I think, you talk about Marty, he (Umberger) has reached a level of play that’s uncharted for him. He’s not just a good player right now, he’s a very good player. Hopefully there’s no let-up in sight.”
|R.J. Umberger continued his red-hot play by scoring a pair of goals on Tuesday night to give him six goals in this series and seven in 11 playoff games this season.
Umberger was one of the players who suffered the most last season. He finished with 28 points in 81 games and was a League-worst minus-32.
“You can talk about the players we added, but even bigger has been the development of our young players that were here,” said forward Mike Knuble, who returned after missing five games with a partially torn hamstring. “They didn’t have a ton of success last year, but they’ve taken a huge step forward. Guys like R.J., Jeff (Carter) and Mike (Richards) and Randy Jones. Everybody who was here took their lumps last year. You knew changes were going to be made, and you knew it wasn’t a good indication of the type of players we were. You get your butt kicked enough, it makes you want to play better and be a better team.”
Hartnell made it 2-0 when he banged in the rebound of a Vaclav Prospal shot that went off the post behind Halak. Before Halak could square up, Hartnell scored his second of the postseason at 6:47 of the third.
But the 2-0 lead evaporated in 37 seconds. First, Gorges’ harmless-looking point shot hit Tomas Plekanec and went behind Biron at 12:59. On the next shift, Mark Streit’s point shot hit Jones in front and dropped onto Saku Koivu’s stick to Biron’s left, and Montreal’s captain scored to tie the game.
But two minutes later, Steve Begin was sent off for interference when he left his feet to deliver a hit on Sami Kapanen in front of the Canadiens bench.
I didn’t see it,” Stevens said. “I just saw the arm go up and I was a little relieved because we had the puck.”
Carbonneau had a different view.
“I don’t want to get fined,” he said. “Did you watch it? You watch the whole game and you tell me after (what you think).”
The Flyers controlled the puck in Montreal’s zone and Prospal fired a shot from the left circle that hit the post and landed in front. Knuble had a swipe at it, but the loose puck dribbled to Briere at the left post, where he tapped it past Halak.
“It’s a very good feeling (especially) after being on the ice for those two goals that let the Canadiens back in the game,” Briere said. “Our line didn’t have the chance to play too much last game because of all the penalties. We wanted to come back with a strong game.
“We were in their zone for most of the night, we created a lot, one of us (Briere, Hartnell or Prospal) were on the ice for all the first three goals. When they (the Canadiens) scored those two goals to get back into the game, it was frustrating and all we were thinking was that we had to get it back. Our teammates have been there down the stretch for us and we can’t let them down like that. We have to find a way to get it done. And we were able to get that lead again.”
While the Flyers can exult in just how far they’ve come, they recognize the difficult road that remains. They learned that firsthand in the first round, when they gave away a 3-1 series lead on Washington only to win Game 7 in overtime.
“The hardest work is head of us in this series,” Stevens said. “We’re a young team that had to learn how to win last time, and now we’re in a situation where it’s 3-1, but by no means is it over. Every game has been tight, every game has been a little bit pull and tug here. The next game is going to be the toughest.”
The Canadiens’ late rally is a sign of hope for their coach.
“We’ve been able to pierce them in the third period,” Carbonneau said. “We need to find a way to do it in the first and second period — early, so that we can get that confidence back. I am still really confident that we can win this series. It’s going to have to go one day at a time. We have two days now to recharge, but then after that, three games in four nights — and I like our chances.”
Contact Adam Kimelman at email@example.com.