Monday, April 25, 2011

A Philadelphia Easter to Remember

This Easter weekend was one of the craziest roller-coasters I've ever been on. It encompassed a sweep by the Phillies, a heart-wrenching overtime loss and the craziest, most exciting Easter Sunday in recent memory, highlighted by being at the Sixers' stunning four-point victory to keep the season alive.

It all began Friday with me getting let out of work early and hitting up the truth that is Paesano's for an absolutely delicious pregame meal before game 5 of the Flyers-Sabres game. I could not have been more prepared, and I was ready for the Flyers to continue to assert their will and hopefully this time solve Ryan Miller like they did in games 2 and 3. But before I could blink, Brian Boucher had given two of the worst goals in the history of hockey on any level, and before the period was through, the Flyers trailed 3-0 and somehow Michael Leighton was back in net.

I was absolutely beside myself. Here I was watching Ryan Miller play literally perfect goaltender in two games and damn near perfect hockey in the other two while our goalies could not even make the simplest of saves. I mean, yeah, Boucher played fantastic in games 2 through 4, but that was all offset in less than four horrible minutes of hockey. And then after giving up a third goal before the period was even through, Michael Leighton was unbelievably in net. I was literally sick to my stomach and beyond dejected. The way Miller had been playing, a three-goal lead seemed like just too much to overcome. And I was certain Buffalo would just pack it in and play a trap, uglying the game up.

But the Flyers did not back down. Led once again by James van Riemsdyk - who has easily been the best skater in this series - the Flyers inched their way back. Sensing that they had to step up their game to both figure out Miller and protect Leighton, the Flyers flipped the switch and took their game to another level. I mean, from the moment Leighton took his place in the crease on, the Flyers completely dominated every facet of the game. And finally 8 minutes into the second period, JVR lit the lamp to start the comeback, just like he did in a pretty infamous game last postseason.

Less than two minutes later, Andrej Meszaros, who was an absolute monster Friday night, made it a one-goal contest on an absolute blast.

It was literally all Flyers from that point on. And less than four minutes into the third, the Flyers scored one of the most beautiful goals I've ever seen to draw even. Kris Versteeg made an unbelievable play falling down to win the puck behind Miller and got it to Mike Richards. From an impossible angle, Richards fired an airborne pass from behind one side of the net to Danny Briere out in front on the other side of the net. And Briere incredibly flagged it out of mid-air and banged it by Miller. It was a thing of beauty.

Versteeg, who I absolutely destroyed after game 1 and was completely underwhelmed by in the regular season, was awesome again. Since game 3, he's elevated his game to another level, and his great hustle to win that puck battle resulted in the game-tying goal. It looked like only a matter of time before the Flyers would light the lamp again and head back to Philadelphia with a 3-2 lead on Easter Sunday.

But Ryan Miller had other ideas. Just as he has all series, he stepped his game to another level as well. The Flyers continued to pour on the pressure, but Miller wouldn't budge, and the game went to overtime. Once we went to OT, the feeling in my stomach changed. The Flyers had dominated, completely taken control and it looked inevitable that they would win in regulation. But once the game went to overtime, the confidence vanished. Not because of the way the Flyers were playing, obviously, but simply because the Sabres had Ryan Miller at one end, while the Flyers had a Michael Leighton who had played only one game and two periods and five minutes of hockey in the NHL this season.

All it took was five minutes for disaster to strike. Matt Carle got to a puck in his own zone and had a pretty easy play to chip it out and regroup. Instead, he decided to reverse it to his defensemate Andrej Meszaros, a maddening play the Flyers make all the time. Still, it looked relatively harmless. Meszaros had Claude Giroux in front of him and looked to have a nice outlet to get the Flyers out of the zone and start up the ice. But instead, Meszaros decided to reverse it back to Carle behind the net. Only Carle couldn't handle the pass, Buffalo pounced on the turnover, got the puck to the point and fired. Leighton, who had seen little rubber since taking over for Boucher and was clearly rusty, left a big, fat rebound in front. Tyler Ennis jumped on it, banged it home and ended the game in deflating fashion, all thanks to an egregiously bad turnover by Meszaros and Carle.

It was literally a soul-crushing loss. The Flyers had overcome some absolutely horrendous goaltending by Boucher in the first to battle all the way back and tie it up, only to lose in overtime. I honestly would have rather seen them just lose 3-0 or even 7-2 or something. Anything but that. It was another game that they should have won, a game that they outplayed Buffalo, but the Sabres have Ryan Miller in net while the Flyers have a revolving door of question marks in the crease. I didn't even yell or curse or throw anything at the TV. I just sat there, stunned in silence and asking for drugs. Anything to forget that loss.

What I opted for was to turn over to the Phillies game to hopefully ease my pain. For a moment, things were going well. Cole Hamels was pitching a gem with his new creepy goatee, even if he somehow got picked off first despite being literally a step off the bag moments after I focused my attention on the game. That wasn't what made things go from incredibly bad to even worse. No, what sent me even more over the edge than I already was was Jimmy Rollins.

After Clayton Richard had given up a single to Cole Hamels to lead off the inning and then picked Cole off, he then handed out back-to-back walks to Shane Victorino and Placido Polanco, who batters that you literally have to try incredibly hard to walk. And right as Jimmy came up, I said what every Phillies fan on the planet was thinking and saying to someone at the time: "I swear, if Jimmy swings at the first pitch and pops it up, I'm gonna lose it. You know he's going to swing at the first pitch and pop it up." It's what we call the Jimmy in my circle of friends. And of course, that asshole son of a bitch swings at the first pitch and flies out to shallow center.

That was it for me. I was done for the night. There would be no partying, no drinking, no having fun. No, what I did after that at-bat was head straight up to my room, down some Nyquil and shave my head. Thankfully, I did tune in immediately when I got to my room to see Ryan Howard triple in Shane and Polanco, giving Hamels all the runs he'd need, but I didn't exactly think this through. You see, I downed the Nyquil first, and then decided to shave my head. By the time I was going over my scalp for the second time, I was getting all sorts of drowsy. Luckily I managed to avoid any serious bodily harm, but I was out like a light shortly after that and preparing for a nice little Saturday.

With the Sixers and Flyers mercifully idle, I had a break of the emotional trauma of playoff basketball and hockey. So a bunch of my friends and I, most of whom had tickets to game 4 of the Sixers-Heat series on Easter Sunday, got together for some day drinking. Then we hit up the best pizza in the tristate area, feasting our faces with six pies from Tacconelli's for seven people and two bottles of wine.

And that was just a precursor to seeing Gene Ween at the World Cafe. It was pretty much the perfect Saturday. I got incredibly drunk, ate like a king, saw an excellent show, the Phillies won and I fell asleep with a pounding headache but extremely happy because I knew I was headed to a Sixers playoff game the next day.

And what a day it was. I woke up feeling surprisingly well Sunday morning, amped to see the Sixers take on LeBron, Wade, Bosh and the Heat. While I was pretty much certain the Heat would complete the sweep, I was hoping for a pleasant surprise. I was picked up by uncle jellyfish and our friend Miff as we headed down to the Wells Fargo Center as the lead car. Three of our other friends were another car following us, and one more was meeting us at the arena. We got there and headed straight in, anticipating the other car to come with their sign. However, their sign, which read, "Hey LeFraud, suck an egg," was confiscated upon entrance. Apparently that was deemed too flagrant despite the Easter tie-in. Lame, Sixers security. Lame. This is Philadelphia after all.

Anyway, we took our seat in section 118, catty corner from the Sixers' bench. Going in, I wasn't entirely sure what the crowd would be like. I've been to Sixers playoff games at the height of Allen Iverson's powers, and I've been to playoff games since. The demeanor at the games the past couple of trips to the playoffs was considerably less exciting than during the Iverson days, and there were never any games close to sellouts. I knew the Heat would draw a big crowd and that game 3 had sold out, but with it being Easter and the Sixers down 3-0 in the series, I wasn't sure just how many fans would show up. Initially, there were a decent amount of empty seats, but before it was all said and done, the placed was full. And electric.

The Sixers came out on fire the way they did in games 1 and 3, jumped out to a 12-point lead and the place was rocking. There were big swarms of fake Heat fans pretending to care about Miami despite never having left Philadelphia in their entire lives, but it was mostly an amped, excited, loud Philadelphia crowd. For the first time since Allen Iverson was here the first time around, the building had the type of energy you just can't describe unless you were there. It was absolutely awesome.

It felt like old times. It really did. With every play, the crowd was into it. The Sixers helped the fact with their torrid start. Elton Brand was the man, doing it all. Andre Iguodala actually showed up offensively. Jrue Holiday had a good start. Everything was going well. But just as was the case in games 1 and 3, the Heat methodically came back. LeBron and Wade were on top of their games, and before you could blink what was once a 16-point Sixers lead had completely disappeared. The Sixers went from up 12 after the first quarter to down a point at halftime. It was at that moment that just about everyone in the Wells Fargo Center thought the Heat would pull away in the third and eliminate the Sixers.

A few minutes into the second half, the Sixers looked doomed and we were beginning to discuss our exit strategy to catch the Flyers game. But the Sixers simply wouldn't go away. Brand was an absolute force. Iguodala wasn't trying to do too much and was actually attacking the rim. And Evan Turner came in and played the best basketball of his young NBA career. For the first time all season, Turner looked 100 percent confident and unafraid. He was going at the Heat.

The bad part was Jrue Holiday had picked up three fouls in the first half and had to sit a long time. In his absence, Lou Williams struggled mightily. Then when Jrue returned, he got the yips and started to turn the ball over. And Lou still couldn't hit a shot. But the Sixers still hung tough. They played relentless defense, especially keying on Chris Bosh, who for the first time all series was ineffective. And the crowd fed off their defensive effort and vice versa, especially the incredibly large man behind the basket who was dancing his ass off ... and then lifted his shirt to reveal "Philly #1" painted on his enormously large torso.

As much as I wanted to see the start of the Flyers game, I couldn't leave. The Sixers wouldn't let me. In the fourth quarter, they showed the type of guts they haven't had in years. Taking the best punches from LeBron and Wade, who finished with 31 and 22 points respectively, the Sixers still wouldn't go away. Lou Williams, who was struggling so badly that we were calling for him to be banished from the court, suddenly took over. He went bonkers in the fourth, keeping the Sixers in it. But still, the Heat were keeping the Sixers at arm's length. That is, until Jrue Holiday, who had struggled big time in the second half holding on to the ball, hit the biggest three of his career to bring the Sixers within one. We were going berserk, jumping and hugging and screaming.

And after a huge stop, Lou Will came down and hit the most clutch shot of his life, nailing the go-ahead three right in Dwyane Wade's grill.

At that point, it was complete pandemonium in the Wells Fargo Center. That place had not been that loud and crazy during a Sixers game since Eric Snow was actually playing instead of doing a horrendous job broadcasting.

Still, the Heat had the ball and plenty of time to do some damage. Only Elton Brand was having none of it, swatting LeBron's drive attempt and gathering it to Evan Turner. And the second overall pick calmly stepped to the line, nailed both freebies and iced the game, putting the capper on the best game of his career.

It was an absolutely joyous celebration. In the big scheme of things, it's just one playoff victory. It's more than likely that the Heat will end the Sixers' season Wednesday night in Miami. But it was something these guys can build on for next season, proof that they can win games in the playoffs, even against the most talented of teams. And more importantly, it brought legitimate excitement back to Sixers basketball. It was one of the best, most exciting games I've ever been to in my life, and I've been to a whole hell of a lot of them. It really was a blast.

Of course, as we left the celebration, we were hit with the news that the Flyers were already down 2-0, and word on the street was that Michael Leighton let in two absurdly bad goals, just as bad or even worse than the ones Boucher surrendered in game 5.

We rushed to the car as I texted Adam EatShit to find out the situation. He responded:

Leighton ... horrifying. Short side wrist shot and a bouncing whiff.

Awesome. Way to go, Pete.

However, shortly after we got in the car and tuned in to Tim Saunders and Chris Therien, Danny Briere lit the lamp to make it a one-goal game. We were hoping that by the time we got to my house for the second period, the game would be right where it was at or the Flyers would have it tied. That didn't happen, because just minutes later, Leighton surrendered yet another goal, and from the sound of Chris Therien's reaction it was another awful goal to give up. Great.

We got back to my house and convened. Thankfully, Leighton was done, hopefully for good. I know what he did last year, but this ain't last year. No more Leighton please. I mean, the Flyers outshot the Sabres 17 to freakin 8 in the first period but trailed 3-1 because our goalies completely suck. Un-freakin-believable. Say what you want about Sergei Bobrovsky, but he didn't put together too many stinkers as awful as the first period of games 5 and 6 for Boosh and Leighton.

But, the Flyers continued to plug away, with JVR getting them going again. When he beat Miller, my house went nuts, and when Danny Briere scored again, on a power play no less, to tie it, it was more pandemonium.

Of course, it wouldn't be the Flyers' way to just build off that and take the lead. No. Instead, Boucher gave up what looked like an awful goal, as Nathan Gerbe fired a seemingly harmless shot that may have deflected off a stick. Either way, Boucher completely whiffed on it with his glove and looked awful in the process. Just great. All that work to battle back and overcome poor goaltending just see Buffalo score again. I really couldn't take it. I just couldn't.

But the Flyers continued to push just as they have all series, coming out like their skates were on fire in the third period. And finally, that hard work paid off, as Scott Hartnell tied the game again with less than 10 minutes to go.

Again however, the Flyers couldn't quite finish it off in regulation, heading to overtime, and again I just didn't feel comfortable. I mean, how could I after watching Boosh play like an invalid in game 5, Leighton somehow look even worse in this very first period and the way game 5 had ended? But this time, the Flyers would not be denied. Just as Ennis had ended the overtime quickly for Buffalo in game 5, Ville Leino made sure there'd be a game 7 back at the Wells Fargo Center Tuesday night less than five minutes into the OT.

Just as there had been pandemonium by all parties involved at the Wells Fargo Center earlier, there was pandemonium again in my living room. As we all were literally jumping for joy and embracing in a huge group hug, uncle jellyfish tackled us all, breaking a cup in the process. And we couldn't have been happier. Here we were on this epic Easter Sunday, already having been at the biggest Sixers victory in years, then watching an overtime thriller to force a game 7 by the Flyers.

And oh yeah, at the same time we were watching Roy Halladay throw a 14-strikeout gem to complete a sweep of the Padres, a 3-1 win that included a Shane Victorino inside-the-park home run.

Yeah, a perfect 3-for-3 for Philadelphia on Easter. It was glorious. Truly glorious. Perhaps the single best Easter Sunday in Philadelphia history. Certainly the most memorable in recent history. I'm just stunned I lived to tell about it.

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