THIRTEEN YEARS AGO, a franchise stood where it stood last night, soaking in the bedlam. If you are of a certain age, you cannot help but remember - Eric Lindros, the big jersey draped on the Billy Penn statue atop City Hall, the almost childlike certainty that we all had, and the terrible fall.
You cannot follow the Philadelphia Flyers without knowing the history. It offers the context, the texture. It helps you to understand why this time is so different.
It isn't that Mike Richards picked up the Prince of Wales Trophy last night, defying the conventional superstition that Lindros so definitively honored, back when. It is that Mike Richards is a captain-and-a-half for this team, the best player on the ice in the series-clinching game against the Montreal Canadiens.
As teammate Simon Gagne said, "Every time we have a big game like that, Richie is always coming strong. I knew if I had to put my money on one player tonight that was going to be the leader out there and lead us to the win, I'll put easily my money on Richie."
He is the captain of a team that has been to hell and back about three times in the last year, a team that saw its coach fired early in the season, a team that went through seven goaltenders, a team that made the playoffs by winning a shootout in the final game of the season, a team that overcame a 3-0 series deficit and a 3-0 deficit in Game 7 against Boston, a team still standing.
Just do not ask Richards about destiny in the upcoming Stanley Cup finals against the Chicago Blackhawks. Do not ask him to play some kind of pretend fantasy game, not after the hell that this team has fought through.
"I don't know," he said. "It's tough to say right now. We have a great team. We have a lot of belief in our team. When the chips have been down, it seems like we get better - and, obviously, we play well as a team. So we're fully confident.
"I don't want to say 'destined' or anything, but we have a great team. We feel we have a good chance, obviously, and we're going to lay it all out there."
Richards got the shorthanded goal in the first period that tied the game, surviving a careening three-car pileup with Montreal goaltender Jaroslav Halak and defenseman Roman Hamrlik in the process.
Richards also had the primary assist on the game-winning goal by Jeff Carter in the second period, a tic-tac-toe kind of play with Richard passing from behind the net. Richards also had the diving, all-effort assist on Carter's empty-net goal in the last minute, so cornily emblematic of the style of game he has played this spring.
"We know how good he is," said Ed Snider, the Flyers' chairman. "He's our captain for a reason. He showed it tonight. He's fantastic."
Richards symbolizes them in many ways, human but grimly determined. This has not been some joyous ride to the finals, like 1997 was. No one ever saw this as some kind of coronation, or the end of some great destiny. This is the end of doubts and inconsistencies, instead. Again: human but grimly determined; not entitled, not predictable. When you think about it, that has been their way for weeks now.
There has been nothing childlike about this run, nothing innocent. This is a team that has stared down its mortality and declined the easy option to blink.
Adversity in its many sporting forms - from bad bounces to broken bones to that historic 3-0 deficit in the second round against Boston - has failed to fell the Flyers. No one will ever forget that this is the Year of the Seven Goaltenders, from Ray Emery at the start of the season to Brian Boucher at the start of the playoffs to Michael Leighton at the end, with another half-dozen or so intermediate stops along the way.
"I think all year the adversity that we faced with Razor going down and then Leights went down, and then Boosh went down - it was just one after another," Richards said. "That maybe set something up a little bit, or we learned from what we can do from before with different people stepping in, and it's happened all year with injuries, different people stepping up."
Now, suddenly, they are getting healthier. Carter's return from a broken foot in the midst of the conference finals, along with that of Ian Laperriere, just doesn't happen very often in the NHL playoffs. You do not often add players as the rounds go on - just the opposite, in fact. It adds an intriguing element to what most people around the league probably see as a series in which the Flyers will be the underdogs.
"I don't consider us underdogs," Richards said. "I know what this group is capable of, and how they're capable of playing. Obviously, our year wasn't the same as theirs with the whirlwind and the ups and downs and the roller coaster that we went on this year."
There's a funny thing about roller coasters, though. You know, the feeling at the end.
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