The Flyers have gone through a lot the past few years -- from an upstart, young team that made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals to underachieving squad bounced in the first round to an injured, uninspired club that cost its coach his job to a struggling team failing to find its footing to hot, then not, to the team that took a shootout victory on the last day of the season just to get into the postseason, a team that upset the No. 2 seed but lost key players, a team that came back from down 0-3 in the series and 0-3 in game seven, to now, Eastern Conference Champs. Through it all, Mike Richards has been the pulse of the team -- from future star and captain in waiting to given too much responsibility too soon to unfit to be captain to the leader behind this surge.
Well tonight, Mike Richards was every bit what you want your captain to be. He led by example. He busted his ass every shift, every second. He could smell the Stanley Cup Finals within his reach, and he was ready to go through hell to make sure he got there. Mike Richards was the best player on the ice, no two ways about it. Way better than anyone else that laced them up. Perhaps better than anyone has been in one game all postseason long. Offense, defense, hustle, physicality, Richards stood out the most in all those areas. He is the captain, the rightful captain, and he was determined to lead his team to the promised land.
Montreal came out expectedly strong, laying it all out on the line, playing like there was no tomorrow (which for them, there wouldn't be, not this year). In the game's first minute, Chris Pronger attempted one of his patented long stretch passes, a thing he has mastered in his career. Only on this occasion, Montreal was ready for it. Roman Hamrlik read it, cut it off and got the puck to Brion Gionta. Gionta pushed it ahead to his former New Jersey Devil teammate Scott Gomez and headed to the net. The normally very defensively responsible Blair Betts read the play wrong and went toward Gomez, who was already being marked by Matt Carle, instead of bearing down on Gionta, who found himself wide open. Gomez wasted no time, slipped a pass through Gionta and the Montreal winger beat Michael Leighton five-hole just 59 seconds in.
Definitely the not the start the Flyers wanted. Not in a closeout game at home. Now the desperate Canadiens had a pulse, had life, had a belief. That's the last thing the Flyers wanted. To compound things, Kimmo Timonen let his emotions boil over just a little over a minute later, getting called for roughing on Gomez, who had been taking little cheap shots at Kimmo all series. That left the Flyers shorthanded and already down 1-0. That's when Mike Richards said enough is enough, tiem to take this game over and demoralize his native country by putting forth one of the single greatest shifts my eyes have ever seen.
A bonecrushing hit to start an odd-man rush, a great pass to set up Braydon Coburn for an excellent chance, great work defensively, and just all-out hustle off an outlet by Claude Giroux, beating both Roman Hamrlik and Jaroslav Halak, who inexplicably came rushing out of his net despite having a defenseman coming back, to the puck, poking it by with a dive, getting up and calming depositing it in for the shorthanded goal, tie game. That's when I knew they had them. This series wasn't going back to Montreal. Mike Richards had that extra something in his game, the type of step and determination that makes you remember just how incredible he is.
Sometimes people like to question whether or not Mike Richards is a true superstar. All-star and tremendous player, no doubt. But he's not flashy, not the fastest guy i the world, not a 50-goal scorer, so sometimes he just doesn't come across as remarkable, as a superstar player. Everyone seems to take for granted all the little things he does -- killing penalties, winning puck battles, playing sound defensive hockey, not mention his scoring acumen. Then Richards goes out and has a game like this, and makes anyone who questions his superstar status look foolish. There is no debate, none whatsoever. Mike Richards absolutely is a superstar, absolutely is captain material, absolutely is a leader and a winner. He is one of the best two-way players in hockey, and his desire, his will is second to none. He drove that point home with an exclamation point tonight.
The Flyers started to get their game going again, and then after a sloppy start to the second, Arron Asham found himself all alone with Halak for the second time on the night. Asham, who looked faster than he ever has as a Flyer, was all over the ice from the start. He was jumping on loose pucks, breaking away from defenders, stickhandling like Jaromir Jagr. Clearly playing with Claude Giroux is rubbing off on him. After already beating Halak on a breakaway with a nasty move only to fire the puck over the crossbar, this time Asham didn't miss. Matt Carle, who had an up-and-down game (some really bad turnovers, but also this play), kept the puck in and fired it right to Asham, who made a filthy move to beat Halak and make it look effortless while doing it.
A little less than a minute and a half later, it was Richards back at it. Jeff Carter, who looked a little less impressive than he did in game 4 but still good, made a great handoff pass to Timonen, who jumped in from the point. Kimmo quickly fed it behind the net to Richards, who one-touched it to the front to Carter, who then one-timed it off the elbow to put the Flyers ahead 3-1, tic-tac-toe.
Another tremendous play by Richards in a game full of tremendous Mike Richards plays. That was all she wrote for Montreal. The Canadiens weren't coming back from two goals against this team in Philadelphia. Not with Mike Richards playing the game of his life. Not with the unexpected hero Michael Leighton in net. Not with Kimmo Timonen and Chris Pronger locking things down defensively. Not with Blair Betts, Darroll Powe and Ian Laperriere checking their hearts out. Not tonight. The Flyers were going to the Stanley Cup Finals, no question about it.
Though it wasn't easy. Montreal wouldn't just lay down and quit the way the Devils did in round one. If they were going to go down, they were going to make it interesting. And that little gnat Scott Gomez jumped on a puck that caromed off the boards past Coburn and right on Gomez's stick. He buried it with a sniped shot past Leighton, one-goal game. Even then it didn't matter. Not when Montreal went on the power play, not when they put the pressure on.
Darroll Powe and Blair Betts were relentless on the PK, as were the defensemen -- Chris Pronger, Kimmo Timonen, Braydon Coburn, Matt Carle and even Ryan Parent when Pronger and Kimmo were in the box. Powe in particular had a great game, winning every single battle along the boards and getting the puck out time and time again with the one-goal lead. Richards and Giroux also manned the top of the PK, and were tremendous. Besides hooking up on the first Flyers goal shorthanded, they were smart and effective killing penalties, highlighted late by Giroux's incredible shift, ragging the puck with two and three guys on him to kill off the final 20-plus seconds of a late penalty, something Giroux has made an artform of. They killed off a four-minute high sticking penalty by Chris Pronger, one of their PK mainstays on the blue line, thanks to a helping hand by Ryan Parent. They killed off a penalty by their other defensive stalwart, Kimmo Timonen. They killed them all.
And just when Montreal was looking to make one last push, pulling Halak, the captain rose up and wouldn't let them, relentless pursuing the puck, stripping Tomas Plekanec, throwing it toward net as he tumbled to the ice, where Carter pounced on it and buried it in the empty net to ice the game.
It was yet another insanely awesome effort by Richards. You could tell he wanted this, that this team wanted this. And boy did he and the Flyers earn it. Every single one of them. From Ray Emery's early solid play, to Michael Leighton's regular season heroics to Brian Boucher morphing into Bernie Parent, only to go down and have Leighton return ... and morphing into Bernie Parent. Danny Briere and his sharp-shooting. Ville Leino for never getting down on himself when he was a regular on the scratch list to becoming a playoff standout. Scott Hartnell for putting a terrible season behind him and finding his game again in the postseason. Dan Carcillo and his overtime goal, tenacity and agitation. Simon Gagne and his returned scoring touch. Jeff Carter for coming back and looking like he's never missed a beat. Ian Laperriere for sacrificing life and limb, almost losing an eye, and then coming back with a couple huge, key shot blocks tonight. Blair Betts and Darroll Powe for their yeoman's work. Andrea Nodl for filling in admirably. JVR scoring the biggest little goal of his life. Arron Asham pulling off moves no one knew he had. Claude Giroux continuing to amaze and awe and turn into something special. Kimmo Timonen and ihs understated warrior play. Matt Carle elevating his game. Braydon Coburn finding consistency. Ryan Parent and Lukas Krajicek not getting overwhelmed. Chris Pronger playing more minutes than anyone and playing each and every one of them better than any other defenseman in this postseason. And Mike Richards, doing everything you can ask a hockey player to do, leading his team in points, killing penalties, throwing huge hits, winning faceoffs, winning battles, defense, offense, special teams, you name it Richards did it. He has been the catalyst. He has been the man throwing himself around like there's no tomorrow. He is the epitome of what a captain should be. Let he never be questioned again.
And Peter Laviolette, boy, what can I say about Peter Laviolette. Master technician, master motivator, master coach. He is the Flyers right now. He's the perfect coach for this franchise, for this team. He's pushing all the right buttons. Now he's pushed this bunch of former underachievers to the precipice of greatness. The Flyers are Eastern Conference Champs. They weren't afraid to touch the Prince of Wales trophy, much the way the Penguins weren't last year. Not after this season, not after all this team has been through and overcome. Mike Richards went right up to that thing and grabbed it by the horns, just the Flyers have grabbed this opportunity and have run with it. Now they need just four more wins. Just four more.
LET'S GO FLYERS!!!!!!!!!!!!