For Flyers, season turned on one win
TO PUT THIS Flyers playoff run into perspective, start by discarding nearly everything that happened in the regular season. The team that has advanced to the Eastern Conference finals was still in the making from October to April. It had moments of great play and moments of utter collapse, and in that final month, there was no clear indication it ever would get itself together.
TO PUT THIS Flyers playoff run into perspective, start by discarding nearly everything that happened in the regular season.
The team that has advanced to the Eastern Conference finals was still in the making from October to April. It had moments of great play and moments of utter collapse, and in that final month, there was no clear indication it ever would get itself together.
For 80 games, part of whom the Flyers are right now came and went the same as the injuries and the swings of emotion and momentum. But on the night of April 4, the 81st game of the season, with a playoff berth hanging in the balance, the Flyers took to the Wachovia Center ice against their nemesis, the New Jersey Devils.
The Flyers flipped a switch and the most improbable night unfolded.
They dominated New Jersey in every facet of the game, played the most perfect game they could have played; at the same time, Florida defeated Carolina in Raleigh, a place where the Panthershad trouble winning.
The combination of events propelled the Flyers into the playoffs, but more than that, it proved to a bunch of doubtful guys that they were capable of being a Stanley Cup team.
Marty Biron made 22 saves, R.J. Umberger scored at 5:44 of the first period, Scottie Upshall and Joffrey Lupul scored 37 seconds apart in the third period and the Flyers won, 3-0.
Biron remembers the way that night went and the feeling in the locker room, starting from the moment Lauren Hart sang the video duet with Kate Smith and woke up the Wachovia Center.
"They didn't have 'God Bless America' a lot this year," Biron said. "They had it that night and the building from the beginning was just rocking and everybody fed right off of that and went to work. It was awesome.
"We had just lost the game in Pittsburgh [4-2, two nights before] and hurt our chances for the playoffs and then we go in and beat New Jersey the way we did, played extremely well defensively, bought into all the little things. Then when we came into the locker room and the group was all together around one television [watching Florida beat Carolina] to see if we were going to go in or not - in that moment it felt great and we were all just one big group together.
"There was a lot of buildup to that point. But to have that kind of performance that night really opened up the guys' eyes in this locker room, knowing that was how things needed to be for the rest of the season."
Mike Richards agrees.
"There were stretches in the season where we played so well that we got the idea that we could do it, but didn't actually do it for a whole game," he said. "I think for that game we did it for a whole 60 minutes. It just proved that we could and we got a lot of confidence from that. We put it all together for that game. That was almost as perfect a game as we could play.
"It wasn't the offense that did it," he added. "It was the defense that created all the chances and doing it against New Jersey, which is a good defensive team, kind of showed us a lot."
And that is the way it has been. From one improbable moment to the next, the Flyers have done things they just weren't supposed to be able to do. They have advanced to the conference finals as a different team than at any other time of the season.
While they have had breakdowns - the loss in Game 1 against Washington followed by losses in Games 5 and 6 that forced them to a Game 7 - the lessons learned that night against New Jersey have forged in the Flyers a belief in themselves they just keep feeding on.
The defense, predicted not to be able to handle the speed of Montreal, did more than handle it. The forwards, who were not supposed to be able to score enough goals to get this far, have done just that.
And Biron, the big, untested question mark of the playoffs, has outplayed two of his counterparts, one who was supposed to be his equal and a rookie who was supposed to be better.
And now the next big test begins Friday night in Pittsburgh.
The Penguins are similar to the Canadiens in depth of talent. Pittsburgh has more superstars than Washington, with both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The Penguins have a goalie just as hot as Biron in Marc-Andre Fleury and they are tougher than the Capitals or Canadiens and are hated more by miles.
Given all of this, the Flyers believe they are more equipped than at any other moment to rise to the challenge.
"We knew it was there," said winger Mike Knuble, who returned to the lineup in Game 4 after tearing a hamstring in Game 5 of the Washington series. "But for whatever reason, maybe we had to feel desperate. They say it's like a switch, but you can't just throw a switch on a team and all of a sudden get your stuff together and start playing well.
"It just doesn't work like that. At times we were so inconsistent as a team. It was frustrating to us. We knew we had the guys in here but for whatever reason, maybe it was the line combinations, injuries, various factors that affect the team during the year, they were pretty evident at times.
"But just since that game [the win over the Devils], I don't know if we felt under the gun, but our consistency since then has been great. You're talking some 15 games where we've been playing the best 15 games of our year.
"We're kind of going against what common sense says, you don't flip a switch, but this team did." *