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Phil Sheridan: Flyers earn a tough reward

With their epic Game 7 overtime victory Tuesday night, the Flyers advanced from a first-round frying pan to a second-round fire.

With their epic Game 7 overtime victory Tuesday night, the Flyers advanced from a first-round frying pan to a second-round fire.

Goodbye to a place where hockey is a trendy diversion; hello to a place where hockey is religion.

In Montreal, fans booed the U.S. national anthem during the series against Boston and rioted in the streets after a Game 7 win - and that was just for the first round. Imagine how intense things will be for the Flyers tonight.

Ah, but that is what it's all about, right? Through seven games, three overtime periods, and an untallied number of stitches, the Flyers fought and battled and rallied to win their first playoff series in four years. This, a fresh start in the second round against the top seed in the Eastern Conference, is the reward for all that pain and perseverance.

Before plunging into another brutal ice campaign, can we all take a moment to appreciate what this April has brought to Philadelphia? And no, we're not talking about the recently departed pack of national political correspondents.

The Flyers became the first of the city's four major professional teams to advance in the postseason since the Eagles' wild-card win over the Giants 15 months ago.

The Sixers crashed the postseason and stole the home-court advantage from the prohibitive favorite, the Detroit Pistons.

The Phillies were interesting, at least, as they began defense of their 2007 division title.

And it is NFL draft week, which means rumors and pipe dreams and tantalizing possibilities have occupied the fever dreams of Eagles fans.

A year ago, the Phillies were off to their typical bad start. The Sixers and Flyers had completed dreadful regular seasons and missed the playoffs. The Eagles were about to trade down in the draft and add virtually nothing to help them in 2007.

So let's enjoy this while it's here.

And now, back to the viper pit that awaits the Flyers in Montreal.

Much of the venom will be directed at one Daniel Briere, who grew up just over 100 miles due west of Montreal, in Gatineau, Quebec. Briere committed the unpardonable sin of declining an offer to play for Les Habitants in the last off-season. In French-speaking Montreal, this falls somewhere between treason and ax murder on the scale of unconscionable acts.

You get the feeling from his chippy style and sneaky smile that Briere will be in his element in the viper pit.

And that's as it should be because, for once, all the pressure in this matchup is on the other team. The Flyers will have the rare luxury of playing loose and relaxed.

The Canadiens bear the burden not just of a hockey-mad city, but also of a nation that resents the appropriation of its national game by U.S. cities and European players. Montreal is the last Canadian city to win a Stanley Cup, and that was back in 1993, when current Canadiens goaltender Carey Price was 5 years old.

The madness in the streets Monday night was steam blowing off after the Habs lost two consecutive games to Boston - the eighth seed and a team Montreal beat eight times in eight regular-season games - to force a Game 7. One watches the video of trashed police cars and shattered glass and shudders to think what would have happened if the Canadiens had lost that night.

The Flyers also were winless against Montreal, a factor that has many hockey pundits pundifying that this should be an easy series for the Canadiens.

It is worth noting, however, that the last two of those games were back-to-back losses during the Flyers' 10-game winless streak in February. It would be a grievous error for the Canadiens to rely too much on those game tapes. The Flyers are a different team.

They are also surely a tired team, having played six intense periods and six minutes of overtime in roughly 24 hours, then traveling to Montreal yesterday. The Canadiens' Game 7 was a day earlier, and they have been sleeping in their own beds since Sunday.

Flyers coach John Stevens might use this Game 1, then, to take a few chances. Why not rest captain Jason Smith and maybe even Derian Hatcher, two physically worn veterans, and go with the fresher legs of Ryan Parent and Jaroslav Modry on defense? Maybe dress Riley Cote and Steve Downie and try to wear the Canadiens down with a little physical play? A jolt of energy just might turn Game 1 into a win (ask those Sixers). At worst, the Flyers would come back stronger in Game 2.

Just a thought.

What matters most is that the Flyers are here, extending their season into May, with a chance to build an ever stronger foundation for their future. Thanks to Game 7 in Washington, the present is pretty darn pleasant, too.

Phil Sheridan:

NHL Playoffs

Flyers vs. Canadiens

Game 1: Tonight at 7 in Montreal

TV/Radio: CSN; WIP-AM (610).