ONE BY ONE, they leaned into him, shook his hand vigorously. Some Montreal Canadiens offered hugs, some hearty hits on that hardened, helmeted noggin, until finally Ian Laperriere took the huge contraption off at midice so you could see that gap-toothed smile of his, the one that says - in so many ways - hockey player.

The one that says, too, "2010 Flyers."

"Guys I don't even know bearhugged me, wished me luck," the Flyers' gritty forward said after last night's Eastern Conference-clinching, 4-2 victory. "They know I'm getting older and you don't have too many chances to win a Cup."

It was more than that, though. Longevity is appreciated in hockey, not bearhugged. These were nods from fellow knights, some from guys glad they don't have to make their living the way he has, some from guys who maybe see in him a model for their future.

"I've never seen a guy with more guts or more courage," Flyers chairman Ed Snider said in the locker room. "He's the toughest hockey player I think I've ever seen.

"And that's saying something. Because I've seen a lot of tough hockey players."

Laperriere blocked one slap shot in the second period last night that was so loud, it silenced the 19,986 for a moment or 2, before they caught their collective breath and began to chant his name.

"Never heard that before," he said, bemused.

Later, in the third period, the Flyers shorthanded and clinging to a one-goal lead, he blocked P.K. Subban's slapper again, then scurried to his feet, fought for the puck, and drew a tripping penalty that ended the power play and defused Montreal's momentum. With less than 5 minutes left, he hustled for a puck sitting on his own doorstep, goalie Michael Leighton out of position, and cleared it to center ice, out of harm's way.

None of it can be found in the box score.

None of that matters to him.

"I wish I could be a 50-goal scorer," he said, again with a smile. "Too late for that."

There is still some discoloration over the eye that blocked that shot late in Game 5 against New Jersey, the shot that seemed to destine more hard luck for a player who has finally reached, in his 15th season, his first Stanley Cup.

Instead, the eye has become a symbol. Of this team. Of this improbable run.

And so has he. You do whatever you can to get to this point, he told the young Flyers over and over again, because, "you never know when the next time is going to happen."

Laperriere, 36, made it back, of course, after he saw four neurologists, got clearance from every one of them, has played with a full shield that affected his limited skills with the puck. There was some trepidation that all of that would affect his mettle, too, that he would be hesitant to block pucks the way he had before, a worry that manifested each time he spoke of his family, his two sons, a future away from this game.

Each time, he acknowledged the insanity of his job, really.

"But if I was afraid to go down," he said. "I would have to retire because that's my game."

His game has permeated everyone. Or at least he has become a poster child for this run, its spokesman. After his gruesome injury against the Devils, Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen threw their bodies in front of pucks in the waning minutes of that game, making statements as much as they were making plays. Scott Hartnell was punched, jumped on, elbowed and instigated to death again last night, but stayed out of the penalty box.

You get hit, you get hurt, you come back. You dive for pucks, put your body on the line, you play like you might never get here again.

Eighteen years of professional hockey. More than a few gruesome injuries. A knee brace on one leg, a knee brace on the other one, too. And that gap-toothed smile that advertises this run.

The last man in the line for Montreal last night was assistant Kirk Muller. Muller played 19 seasons, bounced among a handful of teams, won a Cup with Montreal, reached another with Dallas. He grabbed Laperriere's hand and held it, held it while he talked and talked to him, until one final pat on the back.

"I played a lot of games against him," Laperriere said. "He told me, 'Go get it.' He knows my time is running out." *

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