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Why not Flyers? Philly readies for Cup Final return

by Mike G. Morreale /
PHILADELPHIA -- How incredible a journey has it been for the Philadelphia Flyers?

Let's put it this way. If the Flyers can summon that same passion and emotion against the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Final that they demonstrated in the opening three rounds this postseason, their story could possibly go down as the single-most extraordinary event to ever unfold in Philadelphia sports history.

Take that Rocky Balboa.

On Monday night before a packed house at the Wachovia Center, Philadelphia earned its eighth visit to the Cup Final and a date with the Chicago Blackhawks, the third best team in the League and second seed in the Western Conference.

Philadelphia was the 18th best team and the seventh best team in the East. A mismatch you say? Maybe, but it certainly would be nothing new to the Flyers.

"It's funny how I look at our team now, and it just feels like this is business," Flyers forward Danny Briere said. "This is what we've been preparing this whole season for. It just feels like there've been a lot of obstacles, injury situations that have put us in all kinds of different emotions. Playing well, and not playing well, and the coaching change, and there's been so much distractions.

"But since we started the playoffs, it feels like everything has turned around. The focus has been strictly on the game, that next game."

Does that sound like a team that earned a playoff berth on the final day of the regular season, and in a shootout no less?

"I think in March, the mindset was more or less if we can just make it (to the playoffs), we'll see what happens," Flyers captain Mike Richards said. "This team steps up in big games. When the chips have been down, it seems like we get better. We're fully confident. I don't want to say destined or anything, but we have a great team. We feel we have a good chance and we're going to lay it all out there."

Thing is, it's simply impossible to single out a particular line, defensive pair or goaltender solely responsible for this storybook run the Flyers are creating. Offensively, it's been the play of four three-man lines. The Flyers have received goals from 10 different forwards in the playoffs while two others, Blair Betts and Ian Laperriere, are the undeniable catalysts on the penalty-kill.

Defensively, two pairs of shutdown units have made life miserable for the opposition and a third with Lukas Krajicek and Ryan Parent has made great improvements. In goal, Michael Leighton has certainly picked up where Brian Boucher left off to provide the key save at the most opportune moment.

They eliminated a team that normally gives them fits in the playoffs in the New Jersey Devils in just five games, became the third team in League history to rally from a 3-0 deficit to win a playoff series following their seven-game triumph against the Boston Bruins and have now sent the Montreal Canadiens packing after Les Habitants had just pulled off two of the biggest upsets in recent memory against heavily-favored Washington and Pittsburgh in the opening two rounds.

They persevered despite a change in coaches 25 games into the season.

At the time Peter Laviolette took over for John Stevens, the Flyers were in a tailspin. They were coming off their sixth loss in seven games, were ninth in the Eastern Conference at 13-11-1 and had been victimized by consecutive shutouts for the first time since February, 2003. And it wouldn't get any better -- the Flyers went 2-7-1 in Laviolette's first 10 games on the job.

"It's an aggressive, intense, high-tempo system," Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger said of Laviolette's style. "We needed to get into that rhythm. We all needed to learn it, and understand it so it became second nature.

"As the season progressed, we went through stages where we looked like we were grasping it, and fell asleep at times. It was a little too up-and-down, and now we seem to be firing on all cylinders. It's a seamless transition from line after line, and it makes for a fun game to play when we're doing that."

Laviolette, who led the Carolina Hurricanes to the 2006 Stanley Cup, now has all his players believing in one common goal.

But it wasn't always that way. There was rumored tension within the dressing room and Richards, who took the Stevens' firing personally, imposed a boycott of the local media at one point. A team once considered a Cup favorite was coming apart at the seams just four months ago.

But they'd get their act together and ultimately rally for a shootout victory against the New York Rangers in the regular-season finale, which was really the prelude to their opening chapter of the playoffs.

At about the time the Flyers were taking care of the Devils in five games in the opening round, that's when the injury bug crept in. Simon Gagne (right foot), Laperriere (brain contusion) and Jeff Carter (right foot) were lost for a combined 25 playoff games. But new names would surface, including a Finn named Ville Leino, acquired in a February trade with the Detroit Red Wings, and others such as Claude Giroux, James van Riemsdyk, Arron Asham, Darroll Powe and Andreas Nodl.

The injury to Boucher, who had been playing so well, in Game 5 against the Boston Bruins in the conference semifinals was a huge blow. But that problem was solved when a journeyman goalie named Leighton, claimed on re-entry waivers from the Carolina Hurricanes in December, just so happened to be in the lineup that night for the first time since suffering a high ankle sprain on March 16.

He sat out the previous 22 games, too, including the first nine of the playoffs. But, by some act of divine intervention, Leighton called into duty as Boucher's backup on May 10 in Game 5 against the Bruins.

It certainly wasn't the way Leighton would have scripted his first career appearance in a playoff game, but he had no choice, and has gotten it done since. And, now, he's one shutout from equaling the franchise record of four in a playoff season established by Hall of Famer Bernie Parent in 1975. That's the last time, incidentally, the Flyers paraded the Cup down Broad Street.

This topsy-turvy season has somehow culminated with the team's first visit to the Stanley Cup Final in 13 years -- something no one would have imagined four months ago. No one except, of course, those players in the locker room.

And now, that midnight train going anywhere does have a destination -- the Windy City.

"I think when you spend enough time with the players and you understand them, they get to understand you a little bit," Laviolette said. "Really, it's the players that deserve the credit. They played extremely hard. They were faced with a lot of adversity. I think at Christmas, we were 29th in the League, so they're the ones that had to go out there and fight back, and they did all year.

"When you're in 29th place and you're 14th in your conference and you're trying to fight your way out of it, it's almost like every game is important," he continued. "Every game has meant something since Christmas and it's been a long grind. I think in the end, it's now a strength of ours. We're a resilient group because of what we've been through."

Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale

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