IF YOU WERE looking for omens indicating postseason success, you might be still looking.
But if you were just looking for proof that the Flyers can scrap and flail their way into the playoffs, last night's 4-3 shootout victory over the visiting New York Rangers should have charged your batteries.
Can a team that blows 2-0 and 3-2 third-period leads, a team whose goalie lets the opponent back in the game by fanning on a floater, really be a factor in playoff hockey?
Maybe not. But a team that somehow survived late-game panic two games in a row, netting a crucial four points, points that last night pushed it into seventh place in the East? That team can at least get to the playoffs, a year after finishing last in the NHL.
"I could not be happier with the resilience this group showed," coach John Stevens said after his Flyers defeated the Rangers at the Wachovia Center for the first time since April 15, 2006, ending a string of seven home losses to a key divisional rival. "I know it's not the way we want to finish a hockey game, we want to keep the lead, but to me, it really could be a turning point for this group, because they just would not go away. We have not had luck in the shootouts, but Marty [Biron] stood tall and we got two goals right off the hop . . . maybe it's the fact that I'm an optimist, but there is a lot of resilience in this group, that I am extremely proud of."
The Flyers won a shootout for only the second time in seven tries this season, the third time against 11 losses over the past two seasons. Mike Richards beat Stephen Valiquette through the five-hole, then Jeff Carter tucked a backhand past Valiquette. Meanwhile, Biron came out and cut down the angle for Brendan Shanahan, who missed a backhand attempt, then Nigel Dawes couldn't beat Biron's glove, and the Flyers were able to celebrate a game they seemed to have won twice earlier.
With the Sabres losing to Toronto last night, the Flyers (84 points) opened up a three-point margin on Buffalo (81), and moved a point ahead of idle Boston (83), now holding the eighth and final playoff slot. Washington (82 points) defeated Atlanta and moved into ninth. The Flyers host the Islanders tomorrow.
Valiquette, playing for the first time since March 2, when he beat the Flyers in relief of Henrik Lundqvist, entered the night 3-0 against the Flyers this season, with a 0.36 goals-against and a .986 save percentage. Those numbers were to take a beating.
Richards scored on a breakaway just 4 minutes, 37 seconds into the game, the only goal scored in the first 50 minutes, 50 seconds. The Rangers lost steam when leading scorer Scott Gomez tumbled into the end boards with 10:14 left in the first and left the game for good.
The Flyers couldn't score on a 32-second two-man advantage late in the second, but the Rangers gained no juice from the successful kill. In fact, they went 12 minutes without recording a shot on net. The Flyers blocked 10 shots through the first 40 minutes.
It was 2-0 when Danny Briere, alone down low after being dumped by Daniel Girardi, gobbled up a puck chipped loose from Chris Drury at the blue line by Vinny Prospal. Briere circled the net, tucking his 27th goal past Valiquette's flailing stick.
For any other team, the game becomes simple then, with a two-goal lead and 9:10 left. Not so, the Flyers.
Biron didn't see a soft wrister from the left point launched into traffic by Marek Malik, just 1:11 after Briere's goal. Then another long Rangers shot, from Dawes, ticked off Patrick Thoresen and past Biron, and it was 2-2, with 6:11 left.
But the Flyers were up to the challenge of gaining and blowing another late lead. Briere charged in and rammed home a Scott Hartnell rebound, Malik shoving Briere into the net with the puck, and it was 3-2 with 3:37 left. Again, it was the Flyers' game.
As they have done so often lately, instead of taking charge, they collapsed in a box around Biron, giving the Rangers uncontested possession, and Jaromir Jagr, invisible all night, stirred himself long enough to lazily tuck a rebound past Biron, off Jason Smith, and in, with 1:51 left. At first, the sellout crowd couldn't believe it, but then, having seen three third-period leads disappear in the last six games, it realized it could.
"They got a couple lucky goals. We thought we controlled a lot of the play. It was a big two points for our hockey team," Richards said.
"I think lately we were expecting bad things to happen, and we kind of felt sorry for ourselves a little bit, where tonight, we just kept going," Briere said. "Obviously, for a second, there's a little frustration there - 'There it goes again.' Right away we turned around and said, 'Let's not sit back and let more bad things happen to us. Let's make it happen . . . let's go get it back.' " *