Thursday, May 13, 2010

Three Down, One to Go

If what Bill Clement and Jim Jackson said last night is correct, and if I heard them correctly, only six teams have ever come back from a 3-0 deficit in an NHL playoff series to even force a game 7. Hell, only 14 have been able to get to a game 6. So the Flyers' chances weren't all that good. In the infamous words of Flea, so fucking what?

All the Flyers did from there is pull out a dramatic victory in game 4 to stay alive, with Simon Gagne getting the overtime winner in his first game of the series. OK, with their backs up against the wall, it wasn't surprising for Philadelphia to refuse to go quietly into the night, especially in their own building, but surely game 5 would be the end of them, right? The series was headed back to Boston with the Bruins needing just one win. The crowd would be amped, the Bruins confident, knowing that the only game Philadelphia won took overtime just to do it. I fully expected Boston to finish it off and the Flyers to light fire to their playoff beards.

Instead, the Flyers never said die, humiliating the Bruins in their own building to the tune of a 4-0 shutout. Not even yet another seemingly fatal injury could derail them, as Michael Leighton, ironically in his very first game back on the bench since suffering an injury himself, stepped in for the fallen Brian Boucher and stopped all 14 shots he faced. And all he did was continue to play spectacularly last night, as the Flyers jumped out to the lead once again, mucked and grinded and played smart, sound hockey, holding on for a 2-1 win, suddenly finding themselves in a tied series with one game tomorrow night to decide the whole damn thing.

This entire run really has been a remarkable thing to watch, an unexpected occurrence to say the least. I'm not sure anyone in this city thought this team had a run like this in it. Not after the disappointing end to last season. Not after a horrific start this year. Not after a coaching change, a slew of injuries, another stretch of bad play as the regular season wore down. Not after Ray Emery went down, then Brian Boucher went down, then Michael Leighton went down. I mean, it took a shootout on the final day of the season just to get into the playoffs. And even with a matchup against a Devils team the Flyers had defeated five out of six times in the regular season, no one expected much from the Flyers. Many people said they were better off missing the playoffs altogether to cement home the point changes need to be made.

Then they came out and blitzed the Devils, trouncing them in five. But that looked to be all she wrote. The series win came at a steep price: injuries to Simon Gagne and Jeff Carter. To cap it off, they lose Ian Laperriere, their best shot blocker up front and great penalty killer, in game 5. The Flyers were cooked. Well, turns out, not so much. An undermanned Flyers team wore down in games 1 and 2 against Boston, but a funny thing happened along the way — Andreas Nodl, a guy once looked at as a promising prospect, got his playoff seasoning … and in the past three victories, Nodl hasn't just looked like and NHL player, but he's looked like a pretty good one. Lose Gagne and Carter, keep plugging away. Lose Lappy, just plug the hole and keep on going. Boucher goes down, Leighton steps in and steps up. Blair Betts hurts his shoulder, and the rest of the forwards hunker down and hold the fort for him in the final period.

It's almost as if these guys don't know they're not supposed to be doing this, not supposed to beat a No. 2 seed as a 7, not supposed to overcome injuries to their longest-tenured player, to their top goal-scorer, to their top penalty-killer, to their No. 1 goalie, new No. 1 goalie and new No. 1 goalie again. They're not supposed to come back from a 3-0 deficit to force a game 7. They're not supposed have the makeup to do all this, at least if such a tumultuous regular season was any indication. And to that, they say, so fucking what?

With their back against the wall for a third straight game, staring elimination right in the face, it was the captain who struck first. The Flyers came out last night with the intensity you expect from a team facing elimination in their own building. The Wachovia Center was rocking, and the Flyers were taking it to Boston, shift by shift. Danny Briere, Scott Hartnell and Ville Leino picked up where they left off in game 5, putting the pressure on the Bruins from the start. The defensemen and forwards didn't mess around with the puck in their own zone, making all the easy, smart plays to get it out and regroup — a common theme on the night. And then the first line really brought the house down, with the captain bringing the fans to an ungodly level.

The goal personified the Flyers during this miraculous run — everyone had a hand it. The Flyers had four men deep, as Kimmo Timonen retrieved a rebound, passed it through legs, Gagne poked at it toward the net, Tuukka Rask went down to cover it, Dan Carcillo poked at it to help it squirt free and the captain buried it home. The whole thing started with Braydon Coburn passing across the point to Richards, who fired toward the net. All five guys on the ice had a hand in the goal. It was team hockey personified.

After that, the Bruins picked up their game, but the Flyers wouldn't budge. Yes, there were stretches when they were playing large portions of the game in their own zone, but they weren't making the mistakes that the Bruins had been capitalizing on in the first three games — well, except for that shorthanded breakaway they gave up … though Michael Leighton stoned Trent Whitfield. They blocked countless shots, sacrificing everything to stay alive. Chris Pronger continued to be the best defenseman in the the postseason, cool under pressure, physical, smart. Kimmo Timonen had his best game to date, leading all players in ice time (28:21) and helping out on that first goal. Matt Carle was brilliant, perhaps the defenseman that stood out the most. Even Braydon Coburn limited his mistakes, doing a great job at taking the body and forcing resistance at the blue line.

Claude, JVR and Asham continued to play well together. Leino, Briere and Hartnell have formed a formidable trio. Richards, Gagne and Carcillo, reunited again, were outstanding. And Nodl, Powe and Betts continued their tough play, great forechecking and excellent defense. Every time the puck entered the Flyers' zone, they made the right plays, getting it out whenever they had the chance, supporting each other on the puck, staying in position, marking their man, doing every sound thing you can defensively. And when their opportunities came, they took advantage.

Getting a rare power play, Danny Briere continued his penchant for scoring huge goals. He tried to make a pass that was denied … but it wound up just being a pass to himself. The puck bounced right back to Briere's stick, he cruised in, and then fired off an off-balanced Rask, banking it right off the young goaltender's chest and in, 2-0 Flyers. This is where Danny is beginning to earn his hefty paycheck. The guy just steps it up a notch when the pressure is the greatest. He was outstanding two years ago in the playoffs, and he's been tremendous here again. You can say a lot of things about Danny Briere, but one thing you can't say is he withers in the spotlight. When the pressure is greatest, he's at his best.

That two-goal lead might as well have been a 10-goal lead with the way Michael Leighton was playing. The Bruins definitely picked up their game after the first period, spending the majority of the time in Philadelphia's end, but the Flyers were playing good defense. They were blocking shots, cutting off passing lanes, backchecking, marking their men, and keeping people out of Leighton's face. And the vagabond goaltender did the rest, stopping damn near everything Boston threw at him. In fact, he did stop everything for the first 59 minutes, and the one he let slipped by him with a minute left was no fault of his own. Leighton made all the saves a goaltender has to make, and added some spectacular ones for good measure. He stoned a breakaway. He came out and challenged on a late surge. He stayed down and in position in tight. He anticipated every pass, every shot, and thwarted any and all Bruins. He was, frankly, awesome. The way Boucher had been awesome. Boucher, by the way, got a tremendous standing ovation from the crowd when he was shown on the big screen, bringing the Flyers netminder to near tears. The fans certainly appreciate everything that guy has done for them to get to this point, and they're reveling in the play of Leighton since.

And Leighton had to be good last night. Really good. Because at the opposite end, Tuukka Rask continued his spectacular play. Yes, he let two slip by, and the one by Briere he was a bit out of position, but he also stopped a penalty shot by Ville Leino on an incredible glove save, something he made a habit of last night. Rask was flashing the leather all game long, robbing a few great chances, especially early on. That's why I thought Leino had to go just about anywhere but to the glove side on his penalty shot — five hole, stick side, under the pad, anything but glove side. But Leino did make a great move, take a great shot, however Rask stoned him with the glove, giving Boston a chance, which became even more of a chance with a minute remaining.

But the Flyers wouldn't budge, wouldn't give. They've been confident all along — all the way back when they were in 14th place, back when their coach got fired, back when they lost their goaltender time and time again, back when they were stumbling down the stretch, back when they conquered a demon in the form of Martin Brodeur and even when they were faced with a 3-0 deficit in the Eastern Conference semifinals. They've climbed all the way back to even the series. Three down, one to go.

Who am I to doubt them? Every time I have, they've simply come right back and gotten it done. They've faced elimination four times now this season — once on the final day of the regular season, and now the past three games. All they've done is won each and every time. What's one more win? Three less than four straight, that's for sure. And suddenly, coming back from a 3-0 hole doesn't seem so improbable. Danny Briere has been the most outspoken on it thus far, saying he wants to be a part of history, wants to be the one to come back from a 3-0 hole. "Why not us?" he asked. And you know, he's right. Why not us? Why not the Flyers? They've gone through so much just to get this far, what could possibly stop them? Injuries haven't. Adversity hasn't. Why not us?

It's already been a crazy scene this postseason. The 8th-seeded Montreal Canadiens knocked off the top-seeded Caps in seven games, then came back from a 3-1 deficit against the Penguins to force a game 7 as well, a game 7 that they won 5-2 last night, advancing to the Eastern Conference by knocking off the President's Trophy winning team and the defending Stanley Cup champs. So one improbable run already has gotten a Cinderella an invitation to the ball. Why not make it two Cinderellas squaring off? Why can't the Flyers do the same?

When they lost the first three games, the goal was simple for Philadelphia: Win four straight. One week ago, that seemed as likely as Donovan McNabb getting traded to a division rival (wait, that actually happened?). Now, they're just one win away from becoming just the third team in NHL history to come back and win after falling behind three games to none. Three down, one to go.

LET'S GO FLYERS!!!!!!!!!!!!

BallHype: hype it up!

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