The way he played to make this impossible journey happen, Mike Richards had the right to do whatever he wanted with the Prince of Wales Trophy.

He could ignore it, pick it up, take it to the movies or put it on eBay. When you will your team to the Stanley Cup Finals the way Richards did Monday night, it's your call.

Tradition? It says captains don't touch the hardware awarded for conference titles, that they wait for hockey's holy grail, for the One True Cup. But tradition also says teams that fall behind 0-3 in a series don't advance, and tradition says teams with third-string goalies don't have a chance, and tradition says that underachieving teams that get their coach fired aren't still playing in June.

These Flyers, Richards' Flyers, have no use for tradition.

So Richards did with that ornate silver trophy exactly what he did for his team in Game 5.

He picked it up. As the sellout crowd in the Wachovia Center roared and danced, as his teammates tossed sticks to fans, as the Chicago Blackhawks and the rest of the hockey world watched curiously, Richards picked up that trophy and skated away with it.

"There was actually a little bit of a debate on the ice," Richards said, grinning from under his Eastern Conference champions cap. "I thought about it a bit last night. My first instinct was to grab it. Obviously, it took us a lot to get here and it's not the trophy that we want, but we haven't done anything conventional all year - especially in the playoffs.

"Might as well go against the grain one more time."

The game that sent them to the Finals was a mosaic of these Flyers, of who they are and why they are here.

They gave up an awful early goal, a result of careless defense and a rare lapse by Michael Leighton. Considering the Canadiens were a desperate team that had staged epic comebacks of their own against the best teams in the East, that was an ominous beginning. It sapped the life out of a crowd that was buzzing like high-tension wires after Lauren Hart and Kate Smith's transcendent duet.

Then Kimmo Timonen took what he called "a stupid penalty" and the Canadiens had a chance to bury the Flyers under a two-goal lead.

Then the captain went to work. Claude Giroux, joking that he saw Richards all along and made a great pass, flicked the puck out of the corner toward center ice. This unremarkable clear turned into one of the most unforgettable goals in Flyers history.

This is the play you'll be seeing in slow-motion, in reverse, whenever this postseason is immortalized by the NHL: the pileup, Richards sliding toward the empty net, the puck finding him, and then the patient, nonchalant backhand for the score.

"Relentless," team chairman Ed Snider said. "That's our motto for this year, 'Relentless pursuit of the Cup.' "

"We didn't come out the way we wanted," Giroux said. "Then one of our leaders goes out and does a play like that. It just shows how much of a leader he is. On the ice, it shows the character he has."

"That's why he's our captain," Chris Pronger said.

After that, it was never really in doubt. The team that slipped into the playoffs on the final day of the season was not going to let this game get away.

Jeff Carter, who came back early after breaking both feet, scored a pretty goal on a feed from Richards. Carter, the team's leading scorer in the regular season, added an empty-net goal to seal the victory.

Ian Laperriere, who came back early from a brain bruise, inspired a "Lappy, Lappy" chant the first time he threw his body recklessly in front of a shot from the point.

"You don't usually hear your name chanted for blocking a shot," Laperriere said. "That was great. I'll take it."

Leighton, the waiver-wire pickup who saved the season and then saved the postseason when Brian Boucher got hurt, settled into another solid game. He didn't get his fourth shutout of the series - hey, nobody's perfect - but he continued to look like a man who could win you a Cup.

It has been 35 years since Clarke and Parent and the rest hoisted their game's grail in the uniform of the Philadelphia Flyers. The franchise has known near-misses and crushing disappointment and periods of utter hopelessness.

Now they are four wins from a most improbable championship, four wins from, as someone once said, walking together forever.

Impossible? Could it be more impossible than what they've done so far?

"I don't know if I'd say destiny," said Richards, who will lead them. "But I believe in this team."

After these last six weeks, it's hard not to.

Contact columnist Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844 or psheridan@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/philsheridan.