It is a talisman unlike any other in sports, a clunky, silver trash can with your Aunt Esther's fruit bowl on top. The cup part itself isn't that large, but it is big enough to hold the most fervent dreams of every aspiring hockey player.

They all know the stories, know the names that are inscribed for eternity on its sides, know that the Stanley Cup goes home with you for a day if your team is lucky enough to win it. Everyone in town gets a sip from it and, for that moment, with that trophy at your side, there is something that feels like forever in the air.

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Of course, if you lose, it's just another season.

The Flyers can see the thing glinting nearby now, and beginning Saturday night in Chicago, someone will haul the Stanley Cup into the arena and set it up on display. It will follow the teams through the final round like a prospective date that lingers temptingly around the office.

Players don't get this chance very often and, as we know too well, franchises can go a while between drinks from the Cup. The temptation when you get this close is to want it too much, to make it impossibly big, to squeeze the stick into sawdust.

That was part of what happened in the 1997 Cup Finals during the sweeping loss to Detroit that coach Terry Murray termed, in what would serve as his farewell speech, "a choking situation." The truth is that the Red Wings were a better team. When you are outscored by 16-6 in a series, that fact is hard to ignore. But the Flyers didn't rise to the occasion, either, perhaps overwhelmed by the size of the stage.

The current group won't be overwhelmed. It is playing with house money at the moment and knows it. A bounce here, a save there, and the team wouldn't have even made the playoffs.

But what happens when the big lights go on Saturday night and the realization sets in that, hey, that's the Stanley Cup over there?

"The feeling grows more and more intense as you move on and get closer to the ultimate goal," forward Danny Briere said. "But your preparation and your routine doesn't change. That's where you have to be careful. That's where you have to keep it the same as much as possible, so you are in a comfort zone when the puck drops."

Easy to say, and maybe easy to do for this team. The Flyers didn't get here by the ordinary route, so perhaps the ordinary fears don't apply. It was a sputtering regular season, hampered by injuries, interrupted by a coaching change, that preceded the unexpected playoff run. If they weren't cowed by a three-games-to-none series deficit against Boston, then the sight of the Stanley Cup shouldn't shake them up.

"I think we have a pretty grounded team here," center Jeff Carter said. "We know what's at stake, but we have a group of guys who all year have just gone out and played hockey. Not worried about the distractions, just played hockey."

Carter attended some of the Phillies' World Series games in 2008 and watched the championship parade on television. He has studied the black-and-white photographs displayed in the Skate Zone practice facility of the Flyers' parades all those years ago. No player is immune from pasting his own face into the photos and imagining how that must feel.

"It's something you throw into the back of your mind," Carter said. "It's something you work toward, for sure."

They know there is no parade scheduled at the moment, though, and the Flyers are aware that the game can turn on a team when least expected.

"We don't want to think about 'what if,' and be thinking of the big thing right away, what could happen," winger Simon Gagne said. "We learned against Boston that you have to play one game at a time. We'll keep the same plan. I think that's the way to approach it."

Still, there is room for the dreams, and for the sense of reaching for a moment that might not return to you in this lifetime. The Flyers aren't afraid to say how much it would mean, just as team captain Mike Richards wasn't afraid to touch the Prince of Wales trophy. If that's bad luck, well, being down 3-0 in a conference semifinal series isn't the best omen, either, and that didn't jinx them. Spit on the sidewalk and give the Stanley Cup a wink when you see it.

"People say, 'Oh, you might come out too hyped up.' Well, I'm a big believer in energy and a big believer in dreaming about things," coach Peter Laviolette said. "Wanting to win the Stanley Cup, thinking about it when you go to bed, it motivates you, it inspires you to want to be good on the ice. I don't think there's anything wrong with putting those thoughts in there . . . what can I do to win the Stanley Cup? I think those are good thoughts."

When Laviolette arrived, he asked the players to work, but he also asked them to dream. They have done both, and neither the work nor the dreams are quite finished yet.

Contact columnist Bob Ford at 215-854-5842 or bford@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/bobford.