Monday, May 17, 2010

Flying High Now

Holy shit balls was that one hell of an awesome weekend. Undefeated weekends usually are. As great as it was to watch the Phillies sweep the pitching-deprived Brewers to move to four games up in the division, this weekend was all about about the Flyers.

After improbably taking games 4, 5 and 6 to come back from a 3-0 series deficit, the Flyers had the chance to really make history, more than in just the NHL commercials sense. Like history on a grand scale in the sports landscape. Only two NHL teams had ever come back from a 3-0 hole to win the series (the Maples Leafs and Islanders), and only three teams in North American sports (the Red Sox) have done so. Win and make history. Lose, and really, it was all for naught.

Almost as quickly as the Flyers had gone from dead in the water to alive and on a roll, it seemed as if all hope was lost. Just over 5 minutes in, Scott Hartnell — a player plagued by dumb penalties the past two seasons but a player who had, despite his struggles this postseason, seemingly gotten over such infractions — swings at a puck in mid-air and connects instead with a Bruin's face. Two minutes for high sticking. Eight seconds later, it's 1-0 Boston on the resulting power play. Then boom, just over two minutes later, playoff standout Danny Briere follows Hartnell's example, gets his stick up on a Bruin, and the B's go to the man advantage again. And score, again. 2-0 Bruins. I was not pleased.

Neither goal was Michael Leighton's fault, but that didn't make either easier to take. And when Milan Lucic game down on an odd-man rush and fired one right through Leighton, who was not screened, square to Lucic and seemingly ready to react, I was beside myself. Here we were, here they were, fighting all the way back from a 3-0 series deficit to force a game 7, overcoming injury after injury after injury and they're going out like this? You gotta be fucking kidding me. Milan Lucic's second goal made it 3-0 just 14:10 into the game. I turned to my roommate and his dad and said, "You know, these fuckers could have just lost game four and saved us all the trouble." The way Tuukka Rask has played this year, this postseason, hell, this series, how in the hell were they going to find a way to get 4 pucks by him, especially with Boston being able to focus on defense the rest of the way? I was ready to pack it in and watch a team that had overcome so much die a slow, painful death.

But then Peter Laviolette pulled an unconventional move. With his team down 3-0 on the road in the first period of a game 7, he saw his troops reeling. The Bruins were taking it to the Flyers in every conceivable way, literally beating the Flyers at their own aggressive forechecking game. So instead of waiting around, instead of sitting back on the bench and just continuing to roll his lines, to try and get the matchups he wanted out there, he called a timeout. In the first period. I have no idea what he said entirely, but you could see him mouth the words "just one goal." Three minutes later, his Flyers got that goal, as the snake-bitten James van Riemsdyk stepped off the the wall with the puck, fired it as it semi-deflected and sort of knuckled past Rask.

It was just one goal in 4 in that first period, but it was perhaps the most important goal anyone has ever scored for the Flyers in my lifetime. JVR broke his drought, and you could see his confidence return immediately. So did the team's confidence. And mine. When JVR scored, I yelled at the TV, now you owe us one Scottie, and you too Danny," referring to Hartnell and Briere, whose penalties resulted in two of the Bruins' three first-period goals. And couldn't you know it, less than three minutes into the second period, Scott Hartnell pounced on a rebound and backhanded top shelf from a ridiculous angle to bring the Flyers within one.

Now it really was a game, and the Flyers weren't looking back. Ignited by Laviolette's speech, JVR's goal and now Hartnell's, the Flyers were the better team the rest of the way. Danny Briere atoned for his sin with a nifty little bank-shot goal to tie it, and suddenly the team that was left for dead, again, had been resurrected, again.

You hear an awful lot about a never-say-die attitude and teams that never quit, and oftentimes, it becomes so cliche that it gets tossed around lightly. Well not with these guys. Never with these guys. Down 3-0 in the series, down 3-0 in game 7, doesn't matter. They see opportunity where everyone else sees failure. It's remarkable. Even when no one else on the planet, fans included, myself included, think these guys can possibly overcome these seemingly insurmountable obstacles, there they are raising their games to new heights, finding ways to separate their backs from the wall when the whole world is pushing back. I'd like to give you an explanation of how they're able to do this time and time again, no matter the circumstances, but I can't. I just really can't. These guys just keep going out there and defying the odds, shocking the world. And I'm loving every minute of it.

Once Hartnell and Briere brought this thing all the way back to even, I knew it was only a matter time before someone struck. I wasn't quite sure who it would be, when it would come, or how. But I knew it was coming. And looking back, really, I should have known it would be Gagne. He is Philadelphia's longest-tenured athlete, obviously the longest-tenured Flyer. He's been an all-star, an Olympian, a loved and revered figure in Philadelphia. And he's also been, more recently, a guy viewed as an aging sniper with injuries problems and a large salary. Almost a burden to the team and the fans. No one can question Gagne's talents or contributions, but many questioned if his salary and no-trade clause were actually holding back the team. Question no longer. Gagne has been nothing short of brilliant since his return. He took the ice for the first time in the 2nd round with the Flyers facing elimination. Then all he did was score the overtime winner to force a game 5, score twice in game 5 and get an assist and play tremendous two-way hockey in 6. Of course he was going to be the one to put an end to game 7, to get the Flyers back to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Michael Leighton and the Flyers defense did the rest, hanging on to unbelievably advance. I was bombarded with streams of messages and phone calls proclaiming it the best hockey game they've ever seen, and it would be hard to argue. The Bruins came out and seemingly stomped the Flyers into submission in front of the Boston faithful, TD Bank rocking. Only one problem: The Flyers wouldn't submit. Not even a little bit. They got a swift kick in the pants from their coach, and then went out and dominated. The scoresheet will show JVR, Hartnell, Briere and Gagne with the biggest goals of all, but this truly was a team effort through and through.

Arron Asham, Claude Giroux and James van Riemsdyk continued to play as a danger line, spending tremendous amounts of time in the offensive zone and making some truly remarkable plays. Claude is a master with the puck and as sound as they come as far as playing both ways. With Philadelphia nursing that 4-3 lead late, Claude had one of the greatest individual shifts ever, taking on three Bruins and ragging the puck in Boston's zone for damn near a half minute … all by himself.

For those of you who don't watch hockey much, trust me when I tell you that was as good a shift by one player as any that have taken place this postseason. It may not have resulted in a goal or a penalty, but it wasted valuable, valuable minutes … and was a big sequence in the game.

After scoring his goal, van Riemsdyk looked noticeably more confident the rest of the game, surging through the neutral zone, throwing checks, firing shots, trying some nifty stickhandling moves. He was dynamic out there, and when he's playing confident, the Asham-Giroux-JVR line is just as dangerous as any.

Blair Betts continued to show his grit and defensive prowess, fighting through the shoulder pain to win faceoffs and check any forward in his wake. Darroll Powe just keeps throwing his body around, pounding defensemen and forwards into submission. And Andreas Nodl earned his ice time, aggressively forechecking and remaining responsible defensively.

Mike Richards has continued to be a warrior, producing points, punishing hits and taking on any line thrown his way. Richards will never dazzle you the way a Sidney Crosby or a Alexander Ovechkin will, but make no mistake about it, Mike Richards is very much a superstar hockey player, not just an all-star. He's elite, truly one of the game's most understated yet incredibly awesome two-way players. Question his captaincy no more. He is the embodiment of a captain. He really is.

Dan Carcillo has done his best to stay out of the penalty box, and he's always there to lend a helping hand to a teammate. Ville Leino has been a revelation, nothing short of fantastic since being inserted into the lineup. His play has reached the point that if Jeff Carter and Ian Laperriere were to return before this run is over, the Flyers wouldn't be able to sit Leino. He's been that good, fantastic withe puck on his stick and getting better defensively every game. Not sure why, even with his struggles during the regular season, a team like Detroit would just cut him loose, but I'm sure glad they did.

Chris Pronger has been the best defenseman in the NHL playoffs, period. Perhaps he took his Norris finalist snub personally. Or perhaps he's just doing what he does. What I do know is Pronger has been way better than any blue-liner in hockey. Duncan Keith, Dan Boyle, Brent Seabrook, P.K. Subban, name one. Pronger's been better than all of them. And not far behind has been Kimmo Timonen. Truly one of the most underrated, underappreciated players in the game. I admittedly knew very little about Kimmo before he became a Flyer and watching him game in and game out, it's easy to understand how outsiders can overlook him. But being privileged enough to watch him every game, I know just how lucky we are to have him. There aren't a dozen defensemen in the league I'd want over him. He's incredibly smart, rarely makes mistakes and can hold his own against big, strong guys as well as the speedy skill players. He can score, but he is definitely a defense-first defenseman. He kills penalties, mans the power play, block shots, even throws checks. And he rarely makes a mistake. There are plenty of excellent defensemen in the NHL. I'd find it hard to believe there's a team out there with two better than Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen.

And their play has rubbed off on the fellow defensemen. Matt Carle and Braydon Coburn have been one big bundle of inconsistency the past two years, many times playing excellent one game and horrible the next. But this postseason, both have settled down and become reliable, sound defenders. Carle has flourished all year long playing alongside Pronger, and Coburn, after a really subpar regular season, has come around in the playoffs, finally starting to become the player he was a few years ago. And even Ryan Parent and Lucas Krajicek, in their limited ice time, have limited their mistakes and held their own. It's been great to see all the great work the defense has done in front of first Brian Boucher and now Michael Leighton — both goaltenders who have played fantastic hockey — this postseason.

Then there's the players who have been labeled as scapegoats of sorts here for the Flyers in recent memory. I've been absolutely killing Scott Hartnell the past two seasons. Been absolutely brutal. And he's become the goat for the Flyers the past two seasons. And all Hartnell has done is quietly turned his game around since a slow start against the Devils in round 1. He's found his legs and his scoring touch, and he's worked his tail off to get better. And frankly, he's been playing great of late. Same with Danny Briere, a player who has been the target of jeers for his massive contract that doesn't seem to quite match his productivity. Briere gets paid superstar money — yet he puts up only borderline all-star numbers at best, at least since coming to Philadelphia. Well guess what? I'm here to tell you Danny Briere is not overpaid. Not if winning a Stanley Cup if your ultimate goal. Because when the Stanley Cup playoffs ensue, Danny Briere plays every bit like a superstar, earns every red cent of his contract.

He did it two seasons ago when the Flyers made the Eastern Conference. And he's doing it again this year, as the Flyers have advanced once again to that same spot. He's scored huge goal after huge goal, made plays that make you drop your jaw in awe, and has generated chances at every turn. He's earning his keep. And he's doing it when it matters most. As is Simon Gagne. The man has been the name fans seemed like they were willing to part with to get some cap relief or make a major move. Many fans would have loved to see him shipped off in the Pronger deal instead of the younger, healthier (at least at the time) Joffrey Lupul and Luca Sbisa. But the Flyers knew what they had in Gagne, a great two-way player with a sniper's pedigree. So they held on to him, whether by choice or necessity (Gagne's no-trade clause), and without him, the Flyers wouldn't be anywhere near the Eastern Conference finals.

Now here they are, hosting the semifinals of the entire damn tournament, a 7-seeded no less. And they're up 1 game to none against the Canadiens, the 8-seed giant killers who knocked off No. 1 seed Washington and Alex Ovechkin and then took down the defending champs and Sidney Crosby next. But they couldn't stop the steam-rolling Flyers last night. Not even a little bit.

It took approximately five minutes for me to hate every single member of the Canadiens last night. I already hated Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta from their days in Jersey, and last night I wished true harm on them both. Hal Gill is the definition of a poor man's Chris Pronger or Zdeno Chara. He's got the size, but that's about it. Sure, he's solid, but he's nowhere near as good. Though he did hoist the Cup with Pittsburgh last year, which is probably why I hate him. I was tired of hearing about Mike Cammalleri this and Mike Cammalleri that. Apparently, so was Chris Pronger, because he made it his duty to make sure no one heard his name last night. Cammalleri who came in lighting the world on fire and leading everyone's Conn Smythe watch list, played nearly 20 minutes but could only register one shot and finish a minus-1. Chris Pronger was his shadow, and the big man ate Cammalleri alive. The man came at an incredibly steep price, but boy is Chris Pronger making everyone in Philadelphia forget about Lupul, Sbisa and a couple of draft picks. He should be on everyone's Conn Smythe radar, if they've really been watching every game instead of just checking the box scores.

It was remarkable to watch the Habs come in so flat. I couldn't name you a single Canadien who had a good game, which isn't surprising in a 6-0 Flyers' victory in game 1, but still a little alarming for Montreal. Yes, the Canadiens outshot the Flyers 28-25, including 13-6 in the first period, but this was one instance where the shot total didn't reflect the play whatsoever. The Canadiens were firing a lot of far, harmless shots from the point with no traffic that Michael Leighton could save easily and the Flyers could clear with no worry. And on the few occasions were Montreal did actually threaten, Leighton was there to shut the door, like on Scott Gomez's breakaway. But it was the Flyers who were getting all the real chances.

They scored on the power play in the first to jump out to the lead, with Braydon Coburn finding himself down low and digging in a goal around the net. Then just 30 second into the 2nd, JVR carried his confidence over form game 7 to game 1, netting a slam-dunk rebound by Jaroslav Halak thanks to an incredible play by Claude Giroux. Taking the offensive-zone draw against Gomez, Claude pushed it forward by Gomez, completely schooled the veteran Alaskan by scooting around him and firing it to JVR, who shot at Halak and then banged the rebound home.

I was going nuts. Then, the blitz was on. Danny Briere fired another unstoppable rocket to make it 3-0, as I screamed and cursed and laughed and people walking outside peeked in my windows laughing at me. I was exuberant. Simon Gagne followed it up with a power-play goal, as the Habs started getting frustrated and taking horrible penalties usually reserved for the Flyers, chasing Halak, the goaltender who had been the biggest reason Montreal advanced both rounds. Halak surrendered 4 goals on 14 shots.

Flyers fans cleverly taunted Montreal with "Ole, ole, ole, ole" chants, and the team never looked back, riding the wave of emotion from the improbable series win against the Bruins to a 6-0 game 1 victory, now just three more wins away from returning to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1997. Scott Hartnell continued his scoring ways, and Giroux tallied the other Flyers goal, as Philadelphia had six different players find the back of the net and seven different players get two points. Meanwhile, on the opposite end, Montreal's best players were awful. Halak got pulled. Cammelleri was invisible. P.K. Subban was a minus-3 and frankly looked confused and overwhelmed against the Flyers. Gomez took a dumb penalty. Gionta was forgettable. No one did a damn thing for the Canadiens, as the Flyers punished them from the opening whistle to the final horn. The Flyers were the more physical team, won more battles, played better defense, were more disciplined, basically just were flat-out better.

They're flying high now for sure. Of course, we all this thing is far from over. Montreal came back in both their series thus far, getting to game sevens against both Washington and PIttsburgh and winning both to get this far, so they're far from going to throw in the towel. And the Flyers, of course, are a great example themselves. They made history with that 3-0 comeback against the Bruins, so they can't get complacent. Something tells me they won't, not with everything they've had to go through just to get here.

I'm not sure how they're doing it, but they are. This team is playing more determined than any other team. It's reaching a point where you wonder what it could possibly take to hold them down. Because no matter what's thrown their way, you know they're going to fight. They might as well fight for seven more wins. Seven more.


BallHype: hype it up!

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