NHL Playoffs: Two Storybook Journeys, but Only One Can Live the Dream
The Philadelphia Flyers and Montreal Canadiens are two of the most storied franchises in the National Hockey League. The "Broad Street Bullies" as they are dubbed, have used brute force and high intensity as their mainstay since the 1970’s, and throughout the years that style has not deteriorated. Bone jarring hits, open ice checks, and emphatic goal scoring has been their calling, but this season in the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Flyers have relied on timely goal tending and superstar talent.
In Montreal's case, hockey is life. Over one hundred years of excellence and 24 Stanley Cups. The superstar names like Richard, Beliveau, Lafleur, and Bowman are on a pedestal that even Philadelphia's Bobby Clarke cannot touch. However in hockey today, those stars do not exist, especially for both squads now.
Philadelphia does not have the NHL elite talent such as their Atlantic Division rivals, the Pittsburgh Penguins, or as the Eastern Conference’s number one seed, the Washington Capitals. No Crosby’s, Malkin’s, or Ovechkin’s on the Flyers. Although just like the city of Brotherly Love embodies, the Flyers took on the mold of a grind it out, hardworking, lunch pail squad.
However, it has not been easy for the Flyers. Injuries to key contributors have riddled the Flyers all season, and for the better part of the past decade. Since the days of Eric Lindros’ countless concussions in the regular season and playoffs, most notably the hit that New Jersey Devils’ defenseman Scott Stevens landed at the blue line in 2000, which subsequently ended Lindros’ tenure with the Flyers, Philadelphia has transformed from the “Legion of Doom” to a team for a changing era in Hockey.
The game of hockey inched closer and closer to a more wide-open style, and the era of high flying talent on the wing was a necessity. The Flyers countered that style with quality goaltending and hall of fame caliber defensemen, although even the goalies were a question mark during the season with injuries and numerous acquisitions.
Philly stumbled into the playoffs, recording only four wins in their final 12 games. That all changed at the eleventh hour of the season, when Flyers goaltender Brian Boucher propelled the “Bullies” past their longtime rival, the New York Rangers, on the final shot of the regular season. With the save that Boucher made and the prior shootout goal by Claude Giroux, Philadelphia secured the seventh seed in the playoffs and a date with the New Jersey Devils in the opening round.
Boucher continued his stellar performance against the Devils in the opening round conceding two goals or less in all four of the “Fly Guys” victories. Moreover, the Flyers coupled a strong defense with a high intensity offensive attack, suited perfectly for a team nicknamed the Flyers. Captain Mike Richards and line mates Giroux and Danny Briere found their stride at just the right time.
But it was not just the performance of the Flyers’ Captain, even the youngsters were maturing, and the role players were elevating their play and proving their worth. Guys like Daniel Carcillo, Jeff Carter, and the aforementioned Giroux were making their mark, but that was against a reeling Devils squad.
However, the job was not done after one series. Philadelphia stared the Boston Bruins square in the eye for the right to go to the conference finals. Few pundits predicted the Eastern Conference playoffs to unfold as they did in the opening round, but the story still had quite a few twists and turns still left to be written, and Philadelphia was once again right in the middle of it all.
Nothing in life comes easy, and in hockey, nothing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs is handed to you. The Boston Bruins proved that against the Flyers. Boston was riding high entering the second round after beating the third seeded Buffalo Sabres, and the Boston Bruins continued their success early on against the Flyers. Everything was going the Bruins way, with each loose puck and questionable penalty; the Flyers were on the short end of the stick, until Game Four.
With Boston in full control of the series, up three games to zero, the Flyers had their backs against the wall. However, the pieces to the puzzle were slowly taking shape. Simon Gagne returned to the Flyers lineup in Game Four and made an instant impact. All series long, the Flyers struggled to get the puck past Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask, but for the first time in the playoffs, the “Fly Guys”, looked more like a throwback to the “Legion of Doom”, as Philadelphia put five goals past Rask. The most important, an overtime goal scored by Gagne who literally put his foot down, and demanded that he played in Game Four, even though he had a severely injured toe.
From that point on, Philadelphia played like nothing was impossible, and held true to their never say die attitude. With each day that passed, another high-end national media analyst would write off the Flyers and throw them to the wolves, but that was not the case. With each shift that passed, Philadelphia wore down the Bruins, with their offensive prowess and defensive checking. As a fan, you could sense the pendulum swinging, but in the back of your mind, you knew the stats and history about teams coming back from three games down. It was nearly impossible, well impossible for most, but just another day at work for the “Bully Boys”.
Down three games to one, the mentality was: “just win the next game.” In Game Five, the Flyers’ coach, Peter Laviolette, activated Michael Leighton who had just been cleared to play again. However, since Boucher had put the city of Philadelphia on his back for the past month, no one was taking his job, it seemed like nothing could take him away from the net, until a gruesome injury ended his tenure as net-minder. At that point, it looked like the Cinderella story was about to have a nightmarish ending.
Then enter Michael Leighton, a goalie who was waived by the Carolina Hurricanes during the regular season, and the Flyers were waist deep in goalie issues of their own, so the acquisition was mutually beneficial. The 6 foot 3 inch Ontario native was a virtual wall in the crease for the Flyers. In his first action since March 16th , Leighton completed the final 35 minutes of Philadelphia’s Game Five shutout that Boucher started. Game Six was more of the same from Leighton, although a shutout was not in the cards, the Flyers only conceded one goal on 31 shots. The Wachovia Center was rocking and sang the praises of their beloved Flyers.
To comeback from three games down in a seven game series, is a pretty impressive feat, but to add to this storybook journey, the Flyers fell behind by three goals to Boston in the deciding seventh game of the series. Michael Leighton was no longer superman, and the Flyers impressive offensive firepower, suddenly was ice cold. Nearly 15 minutes into the pivotal contest the Boston fans were singing the praises of their hometown heroes. But the team that had minimal star power found the answer from a young up and coming playmaker, and he did just that.
James Van Riemsdyk, a twenty-one year old rookie, was the catalyst that got the Flyers back on track. The mountain did not seem as tough to climb up once that first goal was in the net. In the second period, the mainstay's offensive started to click. First it was Scott Hartnell early on the middle frame, and nearly five minutes later Danny Briere tied the game at three. The intensity and anxiety in the arena was felt in every households watching, and everyone knew the historical accomplishment and potential epic collapse that were at stake.
And just when fans thought that the playoffs would be ultra vanilla once the superstar talent was absent, the longest tenured Philadelphia Flyer and possibly most skilled goal scorer put the nail in the coffin. None other than Simon Gagne lit the lamp for the fourth time in as many games. The Flyers rewrote history, against a hated rival, the Boston Bruins. This series win was not just about the two teams on the ice, but the cities in competition as well. Philadelphia was triumphant, and was set to take on the most storied hockey franchise of all time, the Montreal Canadiens.
Not only were the Flyers writing their own dream run to the cup, but the Canadiens were also doing much of the same in their previous two series. Montreal came back from a 3-1 series deficit to beat the Eastern Conference’s best team, the Washington Capitals. Although Alex Ovechkin and the “Caps” were eliminated, the common fan still had Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins to root on. However, the Penguins could never seal the deal against the Canadiens. With the Penguins up two games to one, and coming off of an impressive shutout win in Montreal, the Canadiens were against the ropes and were down, but not out, in this heavyweight slugfest.
Just like the Philadelphia Flyers, the Canadiens turned to a stellar goaltender that would not allow his team to be eliminated. Nearly everything that the Penguins threw at Jaroslav Halak, the Slovakian native tossed shot after shot aside. And just like the Flyers’ Simon Gagne and Danny Briere, Montreal needed someone to step up and take the reigns of the scoring role, and all playoffs long Mike Cammelleri has been their man.
Were both of these teams destined to meet in the Conference Finals? Both teams finished with 88 points in the regular season, and both squads had storybook journeys to this point, but which story would be written as a dream and which squad will wake up to a nightmare? Through two games, the Canadiens have been far from their usual self, or have they?
The first two games between the Flyers and Canadiens, has been written from the Philadelphia fans’ perspective. In two games at the Wachovia Center, the Montreal Canadiens scored not one goal. Meanwhile the “Bullies” scored ten goals and were ready to pile on a few more in Montreal, however, it was time for the Canadiens to write their version of this fairy tale. Thursday night was an exact reversal of games one and two. Philly looked out of sync from the first drop of the puck, and Montreal had all the momentum, behind 21,000 fans waving white towels, it was a sight to see.
The “Habs” wrote their version, a 5-1 thrashing of Philadelphia, but late in the contest, Scott Hartnell, Chris Pronger, and Flyers’ Captain Mike Richards took action, and said enough is enough, and threw down their gloves and attempted to make a statement, as well as take back control of the series. For Canadiens fans, the icing on the cake was a last minute goal following the subsequent brawl at center ice. So where will the series go from here? Through three games, the series has been hard hitting thus far, and only looks to increase.
The red lights have been lit constantly and each goaltender has had a rough outing or two. Neither team was expected to get here a month ago, but now that both Montreal and Philadelphia are skating against each other, neither team wants to leave the ball first. However, when the clock strikes midnight, the two teams will come together at center ice and shake each other’s hands to honor a timeless tradition, and only one team will be smiling, will it be your team?
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