If there was any question that something special - and unexpected - might be going on with the Flyers this spring, this confident, relaxed and resilient team provided a very loud and clear answer last night at the Bell Centre.
Indeed, there is.
A year after playing the NHL doormat and dealing with waning fan interest, the Flyers will play for the right to go to the Stanley Cup Finals.
In dramatic fashion, they moved into the Eastern Conference finals with a come-from-behind 6-4 win over the Montreal Canadiens.
The storied Habs finished the regular season as the top team in the conference and hadn't lost four consecutive games all season. But the Flyers came back to beat them in four straight after losing Game 1 in the best-of-seven series.
In a breathless third period in which both teams traded furious rushes and quality scoring chances at an almost non-stop pace, Scottie Upshall broke a 4-4 tie with a tip-in goal with 3 minutes, 4 seconds remaining. Mike Knuble's empty-net goal with 49.7 seconds left set off a celebration on the Flyers' bench as they reached the Cup semifinals for the 15th time in team history.
The Flyers will face either the Penguins or the Rangers for the Eastern championship. The Penguins, who lead that series, three games to one, play the Rangers today.
"We have a flair for the dramatic," Flyers coach John Stevens said. "We have a way of making games exciting. "
The Flyers appeared to be in trouble when they fell behind by 3-1 midway through the second period. But within a span of 2:58, Mike Richards, R.J. Umberger and Scott Hartnell gave them the lead, 4-3, and stole the momentum away from the Canadiens.
Playing on his 26th birthday, Umberger continued his stunning postseason surge with two goals and an assist. The brawny winger had eight goals and two assists in the series. His will go down as one of the most memorable clutch playoff performances in team history.
"He was a possessed man," said Stevens, who has used Umberger in just about every situation possible and on different lines and at different positions on the wing. "We moved him around, and he didn't even bat an eye. "
Once again, goalie Marty Biron came through with several difficult saves at critical junctures, especially after Montreal's Andrei Kostitsyn rifled a shot just under the crossbar over his left shoulder to make it 4-4 early in the third period.
When Christopher Higgins sent a wrist shot past Biron's glove side from the face-off circle dot in the second period, the building vibrated from the din of the crowd.
Yet the Flyers, down, 3-1, were not shaking.
They'd become accustomed to squandering two-goal leads, so they knew what could be done when the situation was reversed.
Oddly enough, the comeback officially began with players from both teams leaning against the sideboards awaiting a ruling from Toronto on a play on which Umberger lofted a soft shot that Richards inadvertently redirected. Richards had his back turned to goalie Carey Price, and was in a catching position. If the video review showed the puck went off his glove, the goal would not have been allowed. This time, the video review went the Flyers' way, and it was 3-2.
Richards said the puck went off his shoulder. The goal seemed to tilt the ice in the Flyers' favor.
"We just had this sense they weren't going to go away," Stevens said.
With the Habs back on their heels, Umberger poked in a carom off the glass behind the Montreal net. And 1:16 after that, Hartnell whistled a shot from the top of the face-off circle past Price's glove side, and it was 4-3 going into the third period.
The Canadiens had been talking about the importance of grabbing an early lead and creating traffic jams in front of Biron.
The Flyers knew the Habs would be fueled by desperation and, if not for Biron, this game could have been decided after the opening 20 minutes, but the goalie made several key stops to limit Montreal's lead to 2-1 going into the second period.
Tomas Plekanec's power-play goal early in the first period allowed the Canadiens to play with the lead for the first time in the series.
But six minutes later, Umberger evened the score with the highlight goal of the series up to that point. The big winger's backhander was stopped by Price, but Umberger kept his eyes on the rebound as he tumbled onto Montreal defenseman Roman Hamrlik. While on his knees, Umberger swatted his own rebound into the net with one hand on his stick.
"As I was falling, I saw the puck go right off [Price's] toe," Umberger said, "and I just hit it in. "