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Resilient, relentless Flyers refuse to go away

by John Dellapina
PHILADELPHIA –- The Philadelphia Flyers can't win. Everybody says so. All 42 years worth of post-Original Six NHL history says so.

But they don't seem to know it. The Flyers seem to be under the impression that they not only belong in the Stanley Cup Final, they're going to win -- no matter how many times they are pushed to the brink of disaster.

It was only the most recent seemingly crushing blow of this spring to drive its fist into the Flyers' collective gut when referee Bill McCreary methodically put his helmet back on at center ice of the howling Wachovia Center 5 minutes into Wednesday night's overtime and then flailed out his arms while announcing: "No goal."

Nobody on the Flyers' bench laughed. But you could have excused any of them if they had.

Of course, it was no goal. What? This was going to be easy? These Flyers don't do easy. Why should they when they seem to have no problem doing difficult?

"We didn't want to get down," captain Mike Richards said. "It was obviously a big point in the game, but we just kept on going. We didn't let it faze us. We're resilient.

"We could have packed it in. We could have made excuses. But we didn't. We just came back and played hockey."

Because they did -- because they just kept on doing what they've been doing ever since they fell behind 3:27 into their winner-gets-in-loser-goes-home, regular-season finale against the Rangers back on April 11 -- the Flyers are very much alive in this Final in which they supposedly do not belong. Claude Giroux, the 22-year-old forward who scored the shootout winner against the Rangers eight weeks ago to lift them into the playoffs, scored the goal 5:59 into overtime that got them on the board in this series with a 4-3 Game 3 triumph against the Chicago Blackhawks.

"It's huge," Giroux said of the win. "I don't think the guys wanted to come back again from down 3-0 in the series. If we wanted to win the series we had to win this game tonight."

That's almost certainly true. In the Eastern Conference semis, the Flyers became just the third team in NHL history to come back from a 3-0 deficit to win a playoff series by winning four straight to stun the Boston Bruins -- with the Game 7 victory requiring its own rally from a 3-0 deficit.

But the Bruins were more these Flyers' speed. Though Boston was a higher seed, the Flyers had won more games during the regular season. Suffice to say, neither entered the playoffs inspiring much fear in potential opponents. The Flyers, in fact, finished 18th in the 30-team league. That is not a typo.

The Blackhawks? Now they  are what a Stanley Cup contender looks like. Division titlist. Fifty-two wins and 113 points. One point away from best record in the Western Conference and third-best record in the League.

That is the pedigree from which Cup champions have come ever since the League went from six teams to 12 in 1967 -- the year the Flyers were born, by the way.

In the 41 completed NHL seasons since, no team ever has finished lower than ninth in the overall League standings and won the Stanley Cup. And that lone ninth-place champ was the 1995 New Jersey Devils, who were coming off a brilliant 1993-94 season and played only 48 games in 1995 because of a work stoppage.

In contrast, 28 of the 41 champs since expansion finished with one of the top three point totals in the League. Only four Cup-winners had fewer than 90 points -- including that 48-game New Jersey team.

So add this to the myriad reasons why the Stanley Cup playoffs are the best in sports – despite each round being unpredictable (and therefore worth watching), a worthy champion is always crowned. Nobody gets hot and steals the Stanley Cup.

But what the Flyers are right now is something very different than hot. They are driven, resilient and, as their T-shirts say, relentless.

Both wingers on their top line suffer broken feet in the fourth game of the first round and a heart-and-soul penalty-killer blocks a shot with his face in the clinching game? The Flyers persevere and somehow get both Simon Gagne and Jeff Carter back and scoring big goals against Boston and Montreal, respectively -- and Ian Laperriere returns to inspire with his fearlessness.

"We could have packed it in. We could have made excuses. But we didn't. We just came back and played hockey." -- Flyers captain Mike Richards
Goaltender Brian Boucher crumples with injuries to both knees in Game 5 against Boston? Michael Leighton jumps between the pipes for the first time in eight weeks -- he was just back after missing two months with a severe ankle injury -- to finish off the comeback against the Bruins and then post three shutouts in the conference final against Montreal.

Carrying much of the play in a wide-open Game 1 and a tighter Game 2 nevertheless results in two losses in Chicago to open the Final? Several Flyers were actually amused when asked if they were frustrated by that.

So it should have come as no surprise that they barely flinched in Game 3 when: the Blackhawks erased both one-goal leads the Flyers took in the first two periods;Patrick Kane's breakaway goal gave Chicago a 3-2 lead 2:50 into the third period; and Carter's apparent goal was ruled no goal -- once McCreary had re-donned his helmet -- in overtime.

"Deflating is the wrong word to use," prickly Philly defenseman Chris Pronger said. "I don't think anybody was deflated at all. There are going to be momentum swings throughout the series. It was just a matter of putting your head down and getting back to work."

Which is pretty much what the Flyers have been doing since at least April 11 -- probably even longer, if you want to go back to their goaltending injury hijinks throughout the season.

"It's not even (just) the postseason -- it's been for a long time," coach Peter Laviolette said. "Like I said this morning, (trailing) 2-0 for us is comfortable. We're OK with that.  We know how to battle through it."

Said Richards: "It's a great team to be a part of. We play hard at every point in the game no matter what the score is and especially what the series is, too. We just keep on going."

Even though they can't win. At least that's what everybody -- and history -- says.

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