MONTREAL - The little kid emerges from the gate, struggling a bit with the weight of the lit brass torch he carries in both hands. He wears a No. 12 jersey, legend Yvan Cournoyer's name on the back. Bathed in a spotlight, he circles the ice slowly. The roar grows as he completes his lap and reaches the dot at center ice. He stands for a second, and the noise builds, and then the sound engulfs him as he leans over and touches the torch to the ice, which then ignites a digital representation of a flame that soon covers the playing surface.
This is how it begins, a game at the Bell Centre. It is the beginning of what the Flyers must overcome if they are to avoid getting buried again by the Canadiens.
To you from failing hands we throw the torch; be yours to hold it high. It is a line from the World War I-era poem, "In Flanders Fields," and it has been the Canadiens' motto forever, the words written on their locker room wall dating back to the old Forum.
They did not invent crowd noise in this city, but it is different here. The seats in the building are so steeply pitched that people really do seem as if they are on top of the players sometimes. The fans here are active participants in the game. Loud does not begin to describe it.
As Flyers defenseman Matt Carle said, "Anytime they cross the red line, it seems like they start screaming."
They light the torch and then the players come out for the anthems. They treated the American anthem fine on Thursday night, applauding at the end. Then, when the first notes of the Canadian anthem are played, they all sing - and I mean all of them, and I mean loudly. It makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck. The first stanzas are in French, the last in English, and it just builds.
Then, in the final seconds before the start, they play the second Canadian national anthem - the decades-old theme music from the CBC's "Hockey Night in Canada." Then they drop the puck. Thursday night, there was a whistle in the first 15 seconds no one on the ice could hear, the linesman forced to wave his arms to get everyone's attention to the stoppage. It is like that for much of the game.
"It kind of wakes you up and keeps you alert and gives you a chill sometimes when they're that loud," Flyers goaltender Michael Leighton said.
This is the cauldron into which the Flyers have stepped - and where they were whacked in Game 3 of the series, 5-1. This is the emotional pitch they just could not match, because they allowed the Canadiens to dictate a faster, rising tempo.
"We need to keep pucks out of the dangerous areas," Carle said. "We need to establish our forecheck and see if we can take the crowd out of it by getting something going offensively. The crowd feeds off of it. This is one of the best places to play. With the fans, [it seems like] it's one of the biggest buildings in the league. Just a shot from the blue line and the crowd is into it."
Seemingly forever, there has been the hockey concept of the "good road game." It is a simpler game, no frills. It is a physical, persistent, buttoned-down kind of game. It is what the Flyers now crave as they continue to hold a two-games-to-one advantage in the Eastern Conference final heading into this afternoon's game. It fits their style perfectly. It is completely within their character to play that way. Now, desperately, they need to do it.
They need to wring some of the emotion out of the building with that style of play. They are the more physical team, and they need to re-establish that point. It is very clear how much better the Canadiens played when fueled by that crowd (and an 0-2 deficit in the series). So many veteran guys are on both teams, it is hard to believe a crowd can still matter, but it does. Ask Flyers coach Peter Laviolette about it, and he can see pluses and minuses.
"Well, I like playing at home," he said. "I like our building. We still have veteran players, but our building has been great. You guys know that. I know it's been great here, as well. The Montreal fans have been very passionate about their team.
"I don't think it matters. I do think it comes down to the players on the ice. But as things happen on the ice, that's when the crowd can come into play, both good and bad. You know, they can gain momentum from their crowd, and they can utilize that to their advantage. But there is also a window of opportunity to turn that the other way. So that certainly would be, you know, the ideal situation would be to try to turn that."
They never turned it on Thursday night, not even close. It really is a simple calculus. As the Flyers know very well now, the faster the Canadiens play, the louder the crowd gets. *
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