History Made: Philadelphia Flyers' Comeback a Set of Unbelievable Stories
As a Flyer fan, I sat in my room watching the post-game interviews, agog at the events that had unfolded. "How did we get here?" I asked aloud. So many storylines of loss and redemption, playing through injury, and overcoming the odds had just been written by this team, I felt a need to chronicle them.
Goaltending and the Regular Season
The story starts where everything in hockey starts, with the guys tending the net. Visions of Ray Emery's five shutout periods to start the season are a distant memory, as he only played in eight games after New Year's Day, and hasn't seen the ice since before the Olympic break in February.
Brian Boucher came in to replace him, returning to the team that gave him his first NHL job back in the 1999-2000 season after playing for five other NHL teams and one team in Sweden. However, he struggled, going 4-9-1 in his starts in November and December. After hurting his hand during a 4-1 home loss to Florida on December 21st, he was forced out of the lineup.
The man who replaced him was Michael Leighton. Now, Leighton actually started the year with Carolina, seeing some intermittent play as Cam Ward's backup, but after going 1-4 and giving up 4.2 goals a game in that period (including a six-goal loss to the Flyers on Halloween), he was waived by the 'Canes, and picked up by the Flyers.
And he started quickly, winning his first four starts. All told, he was 16-5-2 as a starter, and excepting the two weeks in which Emery tried to make a return, he saw ice time in every game. However, after suffering a high ankle sprain in a game against Nashville on March 16, his regular season came to an end.
Leighton was replaced by the man he replaced, Boucher. Brian subsequently went 5-6-2 to end the season. A mediocre record, to be sure, but he was responsible for the most important win of the season.
On the last day of the regular season in a winner-take-all playoff play-in game, his Rangers counterpart Henrik Lundqvist stopped 46 of 47 shots in regulation and overtime. But it was Bouch who had the last laugh, stuffing Olli Jokinen's shot attempt in the third round of the shootout to clinch the postseason for the Flyers.
However, the late season struggles meant that the Flyers were only the seventh seed. What's more, the team they were facing were the second seeded New Jersey Devils, an intradivisional rival with one of the three greatest goalies of all time between the pipes and the biggest mid-season acquisition in Ilya Kovalchuk on the wing, in addition to Zach Parise, Patrick Elias, and a number of other quality offensive players.
There was also a little history on the line. In Boucher's first season (1999-2000) with the Flyers, he helped bring them to the Eastern Conference Finals. Their opponent? Martin Brodeur and the New Jersey Devils. The Flyers had a 3-1 series lead, but collapsed and ended up losing 4-3, as the Devils went on to take the Stanley Cup that year.
But the Flyers weren't concerned about the distant past; they were more concerned with the recent past, namely that they had won five of six against the Devils this year.
And they proved it was no fluke; despite losing leading goal scorer Jeff Carter, elder statesman Flyer Simon Gagne, and penalty killer extraordinaire and toughest man in hockey Ian Laperriere, the Flyers jumped out to a 3-1 lead.
And Brian Boucher, who had the Devils on the ropes a decade ago and let them off the hook, didn't make the same mistake twice, capping the series with a 3-0 shutout win on the road in Game Five.
Because the Flyers were the only team to win their series in five or fewer games, they and their fans had the chance to sit back and watch how the rest of the series in the Eastern Conference played out. Smart money had to be on a second round matchup against the Washington Capitals, the President's Trophy winners and number one overall seed.
And things seemed to be heading that way early, as the Caps had a 3-1 series lead over the eighth seeded Canadiens. The other series were Pittsburgh leading Ottawa 3-2, and surprisingly Boston was leading Buffalo 3-1. Those series would only matter to the Flyers if Montreal pulled off a miracle comeback.
And, as if on cue, the yearly collapse of the Capitals began. Washington lost its next two games. In the meantime, the Penguins and Bruins had both won their series 4-2.
This meant that on the eve of Game Seven of the Caps-Habs series, Flyers fans had a choice to make: root on the Caps, and take their chances with an offensive powerhouse with weak defense and goaltending, or root on the Habs, which would mean that the Flyers would play Boston, a team with great defense and goaltending, but serious questions on the offensive end, including the possible return and uncertain effectiveness of Marc Savard.
In the end, the Capitals completed the failure. Alex Ovechkin was out of the playoffs, and the Flyers were headed to Boston. Though I had hoped to avoid Washington, I felt a good deal of buyer's remorse. Tuukka Rask had outplayed Team USA goaltender Ryan Miller in the series before; the Bruins have a lot of big bodies to block shots from the point, headlined by captain Zdeno Chara. This was going to be no easy series.
In fact, it was going to be the toughest series in recent memory, as the Flyers dropped the first three games. Boucher, who had outdueled living legend Martin Brodeur in the previous series, was now being upstaged by the rookie Rask. In a conversation with a friend, it was mentioned that, for what it was worth, Simon Gagne was going to try to make it back for Game Four.
And Simon did come back, and played well, but still Game Four went to overtime. Those were the tensest moments I think I have ever been a part of watching a hockey game. One weird bounce, and the Flyers' season was over. But in the end it was Gagne, playing essentially on one leg, who sealed the overtime victory.
I half-jokingly asked Bruins fans on the way out of the Wachovia Center, "Same time on Wednesday?" which was when Game Six was to be played if we won Game Five. Most laughed it off. But, while anyone who said they knew that the Flyers were going to come back from an 0-3 deficit is almost certainly lying, I felt that if they could go into Boston and beat Rask in his own building, then they'd have a shot.
As it turned out, the Flyers not only beat the Bruins in Game Five, they crushed them 4-0. Gagne continued his comeback, netting two goals in the game, but the biggest story was, as it has always been for the Flyers this season, with the goaltending.
Brian Boucher had his left leg bent awkwardly beneath a couple of players, and had to be replaced by the man he replaced when he went down with an injury, Michael Leighton.
Together, they recorded the first combined shutout in the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 1955. Though it was the first game Leights Out was cleared to play, he looked like he hadn't missed a beat from the regular season.
Now the Flyers had momentum. They had put up nine goals on Rask in two games. They were coming home to one of the best home ice advantages in the NHL. And after Marc Savard and Milan Lucic tried to double team Mike Richards towards the end of Game Five, they had a reason to be angry. Philadelphia was back in this series.
The Flyers continued to roll in Game Six, putting up a goal in each of the first two periods and then holding on to win 2-1.
Leighton shut the Bruins out for 59 minutes, and after the game national newscasters who hadn't followed the team and didn't know about his regular season record raved about this backup (not realizing that he was the starter for more games than Boucher during the regular season) who came out of nowhere to lead the team when star goaltender Brian Boucher went out with a gruesome injury.
In any event, the buzz about the team was starting to grow. They were already one of only six NHL teams to force a Game Seven after going down 0-3. They had already made history. Now the question was whether or not they could go that extra mile and join the '75 Islanders and the '42 Maple Leafs and earn a spot in sports immortality in Game Seven in Boston.
The game starts out in about the worst possible way imaginable for Flyers fans: two bad penalties by two players who have been in and out of the doghouse to begin with, Scott Hartnell and Danny Briere, lead to two power play goals and a quick 2-0 deficit.
Shortly after, Milan Lucic notches his second of the game on a two on one breakaway, and with TD Garden rocking and the Bruins up 3-0 early, it seemed that the Flyers' miracle comeback would end that night.
Now, I don't place a lot of weight on the efficacy of coaches in the NHL (or any professional sport, for that matter), but Peter Laviolette's time out may have been the most important event of that entire night. There they stood, the entire Flyer team looking up at their coach, and while we couldn't hear what was said, it was easy enough to read his lips, and the two words that kept coming out were: "One goal."
And, as if on cue, James van Riemsdyk answered the call. To that point, JVR had been having a disappointing playoffs, having gone goalless up to that point despite putting plenty of shots on goal. But he finally scored on an absolute bleeder that deflected off of a broken stick through Rask's legs and into the net.
And while Boston was up two goals at that point, The Garden was filled with an uneasy silence, as Bruins fans must have noticed the potential symmetry between the 3-0 series lead that they had and their 3-0 Game Seven lead. Still, the Bruins took a 3-1 lead into the locker room at the end of the first period.
If there was a theme to the second period, it can be summed up in one word: redemption. Leighton stopped the bleeding after giving away the three early goals, and the two men whose penalties were responsible for two of them, Scott Hartnell and Danny Briere, both put the puck past Rask, tying the game at 3-3 heading into the third period. What had started as a best-of-seven was now a best of 20 minutes.
Then, with just over seven minutes remaining in the third, the go-ahead goal was notched by none other than Simon Gagne.
To say that Gagne's performance was reminiscent of that of Willis Reed in the 1970 NBA Finals would be a disservice to Gagne, for, while Reed's injury may have been the more severe, Gagne was a true difference maker in the series, scoring four goals in four games, while Reed's effect was more one of inspiration, scoring only four points when he returned for Game Seven.
Then it was a matter of not giving up a late goal. To that end, Claude Giroux did an excellent job of maintaining possession along the boards in Boston's zone while being pressured by multiple Bruins, holding the puck in between his legs for a good 20 seconds while the clock ticked down. And in the end, Michael Leighton kept the lamp off, and the Flyers' comeback was complete.
As amazing as the Flyers' comeback was, there was little time to celebrate. The Eastern Conference Finals start on Sunday, and the Flyers are facing a team that has been crafting its own miracle story, the giant-killing Montreal Canadiens.
Awaiting the winner of what will no doubt be a hard-fought series between the two lowest possible seeds out East will be the winner of the two highest possible seeds out West, the San Jose Sharks and the Chicago Blackhawks.
All told, the road for the Flyers doesn't look to be getting any easier as they attempt to bring the Stanley Cup back to Philadelphia for the first time in 35 years. But this team has already overcome a great deal on the road to get here, and it is highly unlikely that they're going to stop now.
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