So how did a team that won exactly half of its 82 regular-season games transform itself into a playoff beast?

How did the Flyers, a team that has dressed seven goalies because of injuries this season, reach the Stanley Cup Finals, even though they needed a shoot-out win on the final day of the regular season to qualify for the postseason?

Lots of character, lots of chemistry, lots of players raising their level at just the right time.

The "sack of cement" weight of the critical regular-season finale being lifted has sparked the Flyers on their playoff run, coach Peter Laviolette hinted on Tuesday.

Center Danny Briere had another theory.

"I think we're a team that's built for the big games," said Briere, who leads the Flyers with nine playoff goals. "We have a lot of character guys. When everything is on the line, we seem to get the best out of everybody."

For proof, see their comeback from a three-games-to-none series deficit - and a 3-0 first-period hole in Game 7 - of the conference semifinals against Boston.

When their backs are against the proverbial wall, the Flyers don't back down.

Instead, they seem to band together.

"It's hard to explain. I don't know why it's like that," Briere said. "I wish we could play the same way for 82 games and every game in the playoffs, but we all know that's impossible. But I like the fact that when things are on the line and we need big performances, it just seems that everybody is on board."

Pronger's impact

Another factor in the team's playoff domination - an 11-5 record against three teams that were favored to win - has been the presence provided by Chris Pronger.

The defenseman is "made for the playoffs," left winger Simon Gagne said.

In the off-season, general manager Paul Holmgren acquired Pronger from Anaheim for two No. 1 draft choices, a conditional pick, dependable right winger Joffrey Lupul, and blossoming defenseman Luca Sbisa.

"When he had a chance to go after Chris Pronger, now we understand why he paid so much to get him," Gagne said. "A lot of people said they gave up a lot - two first-round picks and Lupul and Sbisa, who's going to be a great defenseman in the future. But [Pronger] is perfect for the playoffs. He's played some big minutes."

Big, dominating minutes.

Laviolette, the coach with the inspirational speeches and the magic touch, has his theories on why the Flyers will be in Chicago Saturday night to open the Finals against the young, speedy Blackhawks.

One is that a weight was lifted off the Flyers' collective shoulders when they won that 2-1, end-of-season shoot-out against the New York Rangers - Claude Giroux scored the winner, and Brian Boucher, improbably, outdueled Henrik Lundqvist - and that it enabled them to play relaxed in the postseason.

The coach's other theory is that he doesn't think the Flyers, who had their second-lowest point total (88) in the last 14 years, were as bad in the regular season as people suggest.

Laviolette pointed to the Flyers' 18-7-1 run that ended on March 2 as evidence that the team had the capability to be among the league's elite.

"I don't think it's as up-and-down as you might lay it out to be," he said of the Flyers' underachieving regular season. "When I first started, there was a learning curve where I think we went 2-7-1. I felt just before Christmastime and up until the time we lost Jeff Carter and Michael Leighton [to injuries], which were almost simultaneous, I believe we were the second-best team in the NHL for two months."

He said the Flyers "lost their footing a bit" because of injuries, "so I look at it that we played an awful lot of good hockey and did a lot of good things down the stretch; we just had to go so far to get it done." (At one time, the Flyers were 14th out of 16 teams in the East.) "When you had one of those bad games or suffered a couple of major injuries, it became devastating."

What a finale

The shoot-out win over the Rangers in the regular-season finale was "probably the most pressure-filled game of the year so far," Laviolette said. "You're carrying the entire season with you. You're dragging it, so it's just a sack of cement you're dragging into that game and into that shoot-out.

"I was watching that game afterward on my computer, and when it ended, they panned the crowd and there was this married couple and they're sitting there and they're arm-and-arm around each other, like they just got through a war. And they weren't happy. They were just tired and like, 'We're in. We made it.' It was like they went to hell and back. And that really was probably like everyone felt. I don't know if that was the turning point or not, but that's the one that got us in the playoffs."

Defenseman Kimmo Timonen said Laviolette - who replaced John Stevens on Dec. 4 - is one of the major reasons for the Flyers' surge.

"Our practices were better right away, and that was a key for us," Timonen said. "We've been practicing better than maybe we did for Johnny [Stevens]. His demanding level is higher maybe than Johnny's was. He wants everybody to be in good shape; he wants everybody to play his system. But the biggest thing to me is probably his demanding level.

"And I think we needed that. I've been here three years and it's been up-and-down hockey every year. We managed to make the playoffs, but not this far, so I think we needed a little change there and bringing in a guy like Lavy. He's experienced and he's had a run [winning the Cup with Carolina in 2006] and knows what he's talking about. The way he demands . . . I like the way he handles players."

Those players have the Flyers in the Finals for the first time since 1997.

"We're still not finished," Gagne said. "We've got something bigger in front of us."

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Coming Friday

Stanley Cup Finals Preview, full of stats, photos and all you need to know about the Flyers and Blackhawks.