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Rich Hofmann: Better late than never for Flyers' Leino

THREE PLAYERS with at least six goals apiece, seven players with at least three goals, 11 players with at least two. It really does take a village to raise a Stanley Cup - and, in the Flyers' case, a Ville.

THREE PLAYERS with at least six goals apiece, seven players with at least three goals, 11 players with at least two. It really does take a village to raise a Stanley Cup - and, in the Flyers' case, a Ville.

They are not there yet, obviously. Truth be told, they might have played better overall in losing the first three games of the second round to the Boston Bruins than they have played in winning the first two games of the Eastern Conference final series over the Montreal Canadiens. If that seems a little too counterintuitive, what with the combined score of the first two games being a rather eye-catching 9-0, well, we can argue about it over a bière or deux on the off night in Montreal.

There can be no argument, though, with the level of collaboration that the Flyers currently are receiving. Most everyone has raised his level as the tournament has progressed, but a handful of Flyers - from Braydon Coburn to Scott Hartnell to James van Riemsdyk - have emerged from nowhere. And Ville Leino might just be the one who came the furthest of all.

As he said, "I've seen the bottom of the barrel."

In February, the Detroit Red Wings traded him to the Flyers (for Ole-Kristian Tollefson and a fifth-round draft choice) in what amounted to a salary dump by the Red Wings. He got to Philadelphia, and this was his fate in the regular season: games played, 13; games not in the lineup, 13. The playoffs arrived and this was his fate: no playing time, not even dressing, for the first four games of the first round against New Jersey. Only when Jeff Carter got hurt did Leino get his chance.

Now he has three goals since then, including a shot that ripped through the glove of Montreal goaltender Jaroslav Halak in the third period of last night's 3-0 victory. He also had an assist on Simon Gagne's second-period goal, throwing a backhander at Halak and then keeping the rebound alive.

Playing on a line with Danny Briere and Hartnell, Leino has 11 points in 10 playoff games and continues to impress with his poise and his speed. He and Briere together are a truly dynamic combination.

And nobody saw it coming. Repeat, underlined: nobody.

"It was an awful regular season," Leino said. "It was a really, really tough stretch there. I don't know if you sometimes have to go to the bottom to get back on top. Mentally, it was tough. Hopefully, I got stronger from that."

In February, when the deal was made, it was viewed as a nothing kind of transaction, just a little roster churning by general manager Paul Holmgren. What they knew all along was that Leino needed to play with skilled players to show his skill, that he really didn't have a checking-line function. And it was hard for coach Peter Laviolette to find a place for him - that much was obvious.

"I think Detroit had some cap issues," Holmgren said. "When I talked to [Red Wings GM] Kenny Holland, I don't think he wanted to trade him. He liked him, and I know the coach [Mike Babcock] really liked him. But they got themselves into a bind and they were going to lose him on waivers. I think somebody would have claimed him if they went that route. We were able to make a trade.

"Our guys liked him. They liked his ability to play with the puck. You need some guys like that once in a while, who can hold on to it a little bit longer and make a nice play. And you know what else he does? He really gets to the front of the net. For a skinny guy, not a very big guy, he plays like a lot of those Detroit guys. They attack the net, and Ville has been doing that here."

A roster is a delicate thing sometimes. Finding a spot for Leino was a significant challenge. It would be only natural for him to wonder. He obviously has more offensive talent than some other forwards on the team, but he isn't as complete a player in every zone of the ice, and that is just as obvious.

So you're Leino, and you're sitting, and you're anxious, and you're wondering.

"He's a good guy," Holmgren said. "He really gets along with his teammates well. I'm sure there were games when he was thinking,'What's going on here? Why can't I get in the lineup?' That's human nature. Why wouldn't you feel that way? But he worked hard. He stayed in as good a shape as he could stay in. He never rocked the boat. And now he's benefiting from the opportunity."

Briere is benefiting, too. That is just as clear. The chemistry is obvious and it is growing. These two seem destined to spend the rest of the spring together, whatever happens - even if/when Carter returns from his broken foot.

"I think we kind of play the same way," Briere said. "We think the game alike. He's very strong on the puck, and you know at times when you think that the play's dead and he's got three guys on his back, he finds a way to keep the play alive and find his teammates around the net.

"So I mean, it's been a lot of fun playing with him. I know it's been a rough year not having a chance to play as much as he probably deserves until the playoffs. But when you find that chemistry and things are clicking, there's no better feeling. You're going out there playing, you just have the feeling that every time you jump on the ice, you're going to score, you're going to create a chance to score. It's a fun feeling to have."

It is theirs now because of a general manager who sensed an opportunity in February and because of a player with the patience to seize it, no matter how belatedly it was offered.

It is the kind of thing that must happen if you are going to have a chance at a long playoff run, the kind of thing happening to the Flyers every night. *

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