The well-dressed, clean-shaven NHL deputy commissioner, Bill Daly, stood alongside the team captain with the scruffy beard at center ice with the Prince of Wales Trophy between them as cheers poured out of the Wachovia Center seats like claps of thunder.

There's a hockey custom born of superstition that goes like this: The captain dares not put his hands on the trophy, which is symbolic of the Eastern Conference championship, because there's a bigger, much more desirable piece of hardware to be hoisted after the next round. It's called the Stanley Cup.

But captain Mike Richards defied the tradition and lifted the trophy.

It seemed appropriate because his fingerprints were all over the series the Flyers had just taken from Montreal in five games with Monday's 4-2 victory.

"There was actually a little bit of a debate on the ice, but I thought about it a bit [Sunday] night," Richards explained. "My first instinct was to grab it. Obviously, it took a lot for us to get here and obviously it's not the trophy that we want, but we haven't done anything conventional all year, especially in the playoffs, so we might as well go against the grain one more time."

Anyone who has any lingering doubt that Richards is not a consummate leader hasn't been paying attention. Through three rounds, he was the Flyers' best player. After the Flyers' inexplicably flat performance in a 5-1 Game 3 loss in Montreal, Richards called out his teammates in no uncertain terms, saying, "It was a good old-fashioned [embarrassment]. Maybe we were a little full of ourselves, a little cocky."

And through 60 tension-filled minutes Monday, he played as if he was possessed.

Richards had the biggest impact of anyone in a game that punched the Flyers' ticket to the Cup Finals for the first time since 1997. He scored a remarkable shorthanded goal that should be the subject of the NHL's "History Will Be Made" ad campaign. He assisted on Jeff Carter's empty-net goal in the final minute that allowed the crowd to exhale. In between, he did just about everything a player can do to will his team to victory.

Richards sensed his teammates came out a bit tentative. "Maybe nervous," he said. And the possibility the Flyers would simply seize up arose after Brian Gionta gave the Canadiens a 1-0 lead just 59 seconds after the opening face-off, and Kimmo Timonen took a roughing penalty shortly afterward.

Richards produced the game's first big hit when he plastered Montreal defenseman Marc-Andre Bergeron against the sideboards and sent him tumbling to the ice.

Then came the turning point. Richards was about to head to the bench while on a penalty kill when he saw the puck softly sliding through the neutral zone. He and Habs defenseman went stride for stride in pursuit of the puck, and goalie Jaroslav Halak came out of the net and tried to beat Richards to the puck.

Richards dove with his stick outstretched. The three players collided. Halak lost his stick and the puck slithered behind him. Richards got back on his skates and tapped the puck into the net to tie the game. The momentum swing was dramatic, and his teammates were no longer tentative or nervous.

"I was actually going to go off [the ice], and the puck just took a soft bounce, and I thought I could get there," Richards said. "I saw Halak kind of hesitate a little bit, then come out, and I just tried to poke it by him. I got up and the puck was actually sitting there. I just wanted to avoid the goalie stick and put it in."

Richards wasn't finished. With Halak out of the net and the Habs trying to get the tying goal, he muscled Tomas Plekanec off the puck and again tumbled to the ice. He slipped the puck to Carter, who made it 4-2, and the Flyers were in the final.

"He reminds me of a young Bobby Clarke," said Ed Snider, chairman of the club's parent company, Comcast-Spectacor. "He does it all."

Snider called the Flyers a team of destiny.

"I don't want to say destiny or anything," Richards said. "But we feel we feel we have a good chance."

The captain wouldn't go so far as to call the Flyers a team of destiny, but he'll go as far as he has to to put his hands on the biggest prize of all.

Contact staff writer Ray Parrillo at 215-854-2743 or rparrillo@phillynews.com.