The last time the Philadelphia Flyers
went to the Eastern Conference Final, in 2004, they were carried there by a transcendent performance from Keith Primeau
When Primeau suffered a career-ending concussion in October 2005, taking his place on the roster was R.J. Umberger
Carrying the Flyers to the 2008 Eastern Conference Final is that same Umberger, who had a series for the ages as sixth-seeded Philadelphia eliminated the top-seeded Montreal Canadiens
in five games in the conference semifinal to continue its remarkable journey to the Stanley Cup.
Umberger had eight goals in the five-game series -- including a pair, plus an assist in Game 5, the perfect present for his 26th birthday.
"Well, maybe someday I'll tell my grandkids or something like that, that would be fun," Umberger said. "I'm just going to take a moment, enjoy it, but stay focused. There's plenty of time after it's over to celebrate it and enjoy it, but right now we have one thing on our minds."
“He was a possessed man,” said Flyers coach John Stevens
. “We moved him around and he didn’t bat an eye. He just wanted to play. … He’s just been a force. He kills penalties, he checks, he’s on the ice when we’re trying to catch up; he’s on the ice when we’re trying to protect a lead. He’s really matured as a pro.”
That maturation process started in Game 1 when Umberger banked a backhander off Montreal’s Patrice Brisebois
for the game’s first goal with 6:45 left in the first period.
But Game 1 ended on a sour note for the Flyers. Montreal’s Alex Kovalev
scored a tip-in goal that was allowed after a lengthy video review and then scored again, to force overtime, while Mike Richards
was in the penalty box.
knocked in his own rebound 48 seconds into the extra session to give Montreal a 1-0 series lead.
It was the third time in eight games the Flyers had blown a two-goal lead, but the players never worried.
Umberger scored twice, and Jeff Carter
and Daniel Briere
added goals as the Flyers took Game 2, 4-2. Goalie Martin Biron
excelled, stopping 34 of 36 shots.
"He was unreal tonight, again, and made the big saves when we needed them,” said Carter.
The Flyers returned home a revved-up team and took a 3-0 lead on goals by Upshall, Richards and, of course, Umberger.
The goals came on just 12 shots through two periods, while the Canadiens piled the shots on, playing most of the first 40 minutes in the Flyers’ end. But Biron continued to excel, as chants of “Mar-ty, Mar-ty” rained down from the fans. He denied the Canadiens on a two-minute, 5-on-3 power play in the first, and stymied another two Montreal man-advantages.
Biron finally cracked after Derian Hatcher
was assessed a five-minute boarding major and a game misconduct at 5:17 of the third, and Tomas Plekanec
and Koivu scored 1:12 apart to make it a one-goal game. But those were the only two shots to leak past Biron, who then stopped another late Canadiens power play. He made 15 saves in the third period and 32 for the game as the Flyers hung on for a 3-2 win.
“Marty has been terrific,” Stevens said that night. “He has been our best player in this series.”
Canadiens coach Guy Carbonneau
opted to start Jaroslav Halak
, who had replaced Montreal starter Carey Price
during the third game, in Game 4, but it didn’t make much of a difference as Umberger and Scott Hartnell
put the Flyers ahead, 2-0.
The lead disappeared in a 37-second flash, though, as Plekanec and Koivu tied the game midway through the third.
"They always say having a two-goal lead is the worst lead to have," Briere said. "Once again, we got that little letdown for a quick second and they were right back in it."
Briere got the Flyers back in it when he pushed a Prospal rebound behind Halak with just 3:38 left in regulation. Umberger added an empty-net goal for the final 4-2 margin.
The Flyers went back to Montreal for Game 5 up 3-1, the same advantage they held in the first round against Washington. In that round, the Flyers dropped two elimination games to let the Capitals force a Game 7. Philadelphia was determined to learn from its mistakes this time.
It didn’t look good early, though, as Umberger’s goal was only one the Flyers could muster in falling behind 3-1 at the game’s mid-point.
Then a bounce went the Flyers’ way as an Umberger shot deflected off Richards’ glove and into the net to make it 3-2. Umberger scored again to tie the game, and Hartnell’s rocket put the Flyers ahead, 4-3, with three minutes left in the second.
Andre Kostitsyn tied the game, but with 3:04 left, Upshall tipped Carter’s shot past Price, putting the Flyers up, 5-4. Mike Knuble
added an empty-net goal for the final 6-4 margin.
While the Canadiens out-shot the Flyers in the series, 177-133, Biron was the difference.
"The honest truth," said defenseman Kimmo Timonen
, "is that Marty was better than Price and that's the biggest reason we're still playing."
One season after posting the League’s worst record, the Flyers are heading to the Eastern Conference Finals. The 1987 Red Wings are the only other team to finish last one season and win two playoff rounds the next. Those Wings were wiped out by the Edmonton Oilers
juggernaut in the Campbell Conference Finals.
What kind of future awaits the 2008 Flyers? Only time will tell, but after a month’s worth of playoff performances, it would be tough to bet against the Flyers.
Contact Adam Kimelman at email@example.com.