First things first, I want to congratulate the Philadelphia Flyers on taking me and all Philly sports fans on a fantastic ride that just fell short of the ultimate goal. As disappointed as I am in losing the Cup on home ice, I am thankful for the way this team played hockey, for how they inspired us all to believe, and how they believed in themselves and overcame tremendous obstacles to get as far as they did.
The grit and toughness that the Flyers played with in the playoffs truly reflects the mentality of the city of Philadelphia, and like the Broad Street Bullies, this team should be embraced by the fans.
On April 11 I was pacing frantically in a bar in Dublin, Ireland, while a random person I had met (who happened to be a Rangers fan) was getting updates on his phone from his wife back at home. After he told me that we were going to a shootout I was terrified. The season was coming down to a simple practice drill, and the Flyers simply weren’t that good, unless the picked the right guys.
Turns out, two of the guys they chose, Danny Briere and Claude Giroux, were the two players that were right for the job, and the only ones on the team that I trusted in a shootout. When Boosh made the final save and the Flyers secured a playoff spot I ran around the bar in a giddy happiness that I hadn’t experienced since the Phillies clinched the pennant.
At that time who knew what the Flyers had in store for us Philly fans? They squeaked into the playoffs on the last shot of the regular season. They got lucky because Montreal lost to Toronto, catapulting the Flyers into seventh place where they would face the Devils, a team they went 5-1 against in the regular season and matched up with very well, instead of the President’s Trophy winning Capitals.
All season we knew that this team had the talent to make it to the Finals, but through a season riddled with injuries, excessive partying, fighting, discontent, discord in the locker room among young guys and veterans, and a coaching change, the Flyers were an enigma. Luckily for us, the team finally came together under Peter Laviolette’s magnificent coaching and beat the Devils in five games.
On to the Boston series, a seven-game battle that I’m sure no hockey fan will ever forget. Games One and Two could’ve easily been in the Flyers favor. When we went down 3-0 I was crushed, but after watching the first few games I still had hope because they really weren’t bad losses.
The Flyers knew that if they played Flyers hockey they still had a shot, and boy did they deliver! Game Four was as close as any, and Simon Gagne’s game winner in OT gave the Flyers the spark they needed. In Games Five and Six it was apparent that the Flyers weren’t going down without a fight, bringing us to one of the best games in Flyers history, Game Seven.
Down 3-0 in the first period and at one point down 3-0 in the series, it looked like the Flyers were dead in the water, but a goal by James van Reimsdyk at the end of the period cut the deficit to 3-1 and gave the Flyers faithful a glimmer of hope.
One thing that I hated throughout the playoffs this season was the fact that the media was allowed into the bench during breaks in the action to interview the coaches. If I was an NHL coach I wouldn’t allow this because, well, I’m trying to coach my team in the playoffs and I don’t need to waste 30 seconds talking to the media.
But anyway, my point is this: Peter Laviolette’s coaching style and intensity translated to the way the Flyers played hockey. This was never more apparent than when he was interviewed at the start of the second period in Game Seven against Boston. Down 3-1 they asked him what he thought about the deficit and if he thought his team was out of it. Laviolette’s reply was simple: we aren’t done, it’s only 3-1, and we are going to win this game. There was no hesitation in his voice, no sense of nervousness. The coach knew that his team was going to win, and best of all, I believed him, and the Flyers did as well!
So after accomplishing the near impossible feat of coming back from a 3-0 deficit, the Flyers’ cinderella run met a team that also had its fair share of upsets, the Montreal Canadiens. Somehow the Canadiens managed to stifle the offensive powerhouses of Washington and Pittsburgh in back to back seven-game series to meet the Flyers in the first Eastern Conference Finals matchup between the No. 7 and No. 8 seeds.
In this series the Flyers brought the Canadiens back to earth. The strong defense of Pronger, Carle, Timonen, and Coburn brought the red hot Mike Cammalleri to a stop while getting unbelievable goaltending from netminder Michael Leighton, the first Flyers goaltender to have three shutouts in one playoff series.
Even more remarkable was the fact that Leighton had just come back from an injury to replace the injured Brian Boucher during the Boston series and hadn’t played since March 16. Leighton outplayed Jaroslav Halak, the Montreal netminder who was the talk of the playoffs thus far, stopping Alexander Ovechkin of the Caps and Sidney Crosby of the Pens.
After disposing of the Canadiens, the Flyers had done the unthinkable and were going to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in 13 years! The team was brimming with confidence, so much so that captain Mike Richards even dared to not just touch, but lift the Prince of Wales Trophy, the award for becoming the Eastern Conference Champions.
Heading into the finals I knew three things. One, that the Blackhawks were better than us. They were more talented, younger, and played in a tougher conference. On the other hand, I knew that the Flyers were on a run unlike anything I had ever seen before. I knew we had veteran leadership and had the only player in the series who had won a cup in Chris Pronger.
I also knew that Antti Niemi was able to be beaten, and if we played Flyers hockey, then we could pull off the upset. Finally, I knew that based on their styles of play and the lack of proven goaltending that this series would be high scoring and momentum would play a huge factor.
Game One, in a nutshell, was a fiasco. The NHL loved the 6-5 affair because even non-hockey fans understood when the puck went into the net, and if I had no rooting interest it would’ve been a ton of fun to watch, but from the standpoint of a Flyers fan, Game One was the series. If the Flyers could’ve played some form of defense throughout the game it was there for the taking, but instead they let it slip away, allowing Chicago to keep home ice advantage, something that controlled the series.
Game Two was played how hockey is supposed to be played, with strong defense and goaltending. Erase 28 seconds of that game and throw in some bounces that go our way, and the Flyers could’ve taken that game too, but hey, that’s hockey. At this point the Flyers are in a 2-0 hole to the best team in the NHL, but based on how they played they easily could’ve been in that position, or easily tied at one. At least we were heading home for Games Three and Four, so I wasn’t too worried yet.
In front of the Wachovia Center faithful clad in orange, the Flyers showed how they made it here. They made the Blackhawks look slow. They out-hustled them to every puck. Most of all, they showed us that they weren’t going to let Chicago win in a cakewalk. This was a series again! After winning Game Three in overtime on a goal by Giroux the Flyers had life, and they jumped on the Blackhawks in Game Four en route to a 5-3 victory, sending the series back to Chicago tied at two.
Unfortunately for the Flyers, home ice advantage really showed during the series, and the Blackhawks took advantage of every mistake that the Flyers made in Game Five. They were the quicker team and played fundamentally sound hockey, but even after they trounced the Flyers 7-4 we had hope because we still put four pucks in the net, and Game Six was in our building.
Game Six was possibly the best game I have ever been to in my life as a Flyers fan. The atmosphere was electric. The Phillies game across the street got rained out, so the World Champs themselves decided to watch some hockey action. Even the Phanatic joined in on the Flyers Fever. When Lauren Hart and Kate Smith belted out “God Bless America” there was no doubt in my mind that we would lose. During the game it was apparent that the Blackhawks were the fresher team. The Flyers looked slower and more tired apart from the line of Briere (who should’ve won the Conn Smythe in my opinion), Hartnell, and Leino.
In the first period the Flyers withstood a barrage of shots and opportunities from Chicago, getting some lucky bounces in the process of being out-shot 17-3 at one point. After Chicago scored and kept the momentum going it looked hopeless, but with under a minute left in the period Scott Hartnell did what he does best and parked himself in front of the net and scored, tying the game at one a piece.
In the second period the Flyers showed the spirit we had seen from them during their remarkable run and took the lead 2-1. But shortly after the goal Braydon Coburn committed a high sticking penalty that the crowd didn’t even see or hear, turning the momentum back over to the Blackhawks, who scored during a four-on-four opportunity while he was in the box.
After adding a late period goal the Blackhawks went into the locker room up 3-2, and the Flyers knew that they had to win the third period to keep their season alive. The third period saw many chances for the Flyers, with pucks flying across the ice, but Philly simply couldn’t get the puck through to Niemi. Finally, with under four minutes left in regulation time, Scott Hartnell provided some more magic and tied the game at three. The Flyers had the momentum back and just missed winning the game before the buzzer went off. We were going to sudden death overtime.
My state of mind, probably like many Flyers fans, was one of euphoria mixed with total fear and terror. Either the Flyers score and we go to Game Seven, or the Blackhawks will be hoisting the Stanley Cup on our ice.
In the first couple of minutes of the overtime it looked like the Flyers would be taking the game. They had control of the puck and just missed putting the puck past Niemi, but, like in Game Two, it just wasn’t happening. Then, with 15:54 left in the first overtime, it was all over. As a fan in the Wachovia Center that night I can tell you one thing, none of the 20,327 fans knew what happened.
The light didn’t go on. The refs didn’t signal for a goal. All we saw was Patrick Kane throw the puck towards the net, and then a few seconds of confusion before sticks, helmets, and gloves went flying. It didn’t take long for them to review the play and it was obviously a good goal.
Watching them parade the Cup around the Wachovia center was like a punch to the gut for me, especially when you think back to the 2007 draft when the Flyers were poised to pick Patrick Kane, but lost the draft lottery to the Blackhawks. Kane, who, if not for a coin flip, could have been wearing Orange and Black that night, instead put the puck past Michael Leighton and sent a dagger of pain into all of our hearts.
The Flyers gave it their all, fought as hard as they could, and the team that put an entire city on its back from April 11 until June 9 knew that they had done something that NOBODY expected them to do, except maybe themselves. They went from a team that was one shot away from making the playoffs to losing the Stanley Cup Finals on one of the strangest goals I have ever seen in overtime of Game Six.
It was a remarkable run, and we should all be thankful to have witnessed it. History was made this season, and this team will be back. History will be made.