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Flyers finally healthy, at just the right time

CHICAGO - Two years ago, in the Eastern Conference finals against Pittsburgh, Jason Smith was the Flyers' last defenseman standing.

Ian Laperriere is one of the Flyers who has returned from injury in the playoffs. (David Maialetti / Staff Photographer)
Ian Laperriere is one of the Flyers who has returned from injury in the playoffs. (David Maialetti / Staff Photographer)Read more

CHICAGO - Two years ago, in the Eastern Conference finals against Pittsburgh, Jason Smith was the Flyers' last defenseman standing.

And that says a lot, considering Smith could barely button his shirt with two dislocated shoulders.

It's probably a big reason why the Flyers lost that series to the Penguins, who then lost to Detroit in the Stanley Cup finals, in five games.

Kimmo Timonen was the Flyers' fatal blow, missing time with a blood clot, Braydon Coburn took a puck to the face and Derian Hatcher was skating on knees that were about to buckle. Consider this: The Flyers' six defensemen in Game 3 were Smith, Hatcher, Randy Jones, Lasse Kukkonen, Jaroslav Modry and 21-year-old Ryan Parent.

Five of those players did not start this season in the NHL.

Injuries have been the story of every deep Flyers playoff run in recent memory. They were a defenseman or two short when Sami Kapanen was forced to switch positions in 2004, when the Flyers lost to Tampa Bay in seven games in the conference finals.

Injuries have been the stories of the year. Except for now, remarkably, when it matters most.

It appears that Brian Boucher will be able to back up Michael Leighton in net tonight for Game 1 of the Cup finals against the Blackhawks at the United Center, leaving Ray Emery as the only Flyers player to start this season who is unavailable in the finals because of injury.

Other than the occasional hitch in Jeff Carter's step, the Flyers do not even have a noticeable limp. Other than Games 4 and 5 against Montreal, the Flyers have not featured a completely healthy lineup since March 7. And it was hell for them just staggering to that point, with all of the injuries they had overcome.

"The whole year we've dealt with injuries, pretty much the whole playoffs we've dealt with injuries," Blair Betts said. "I've never been with a team that has dealt with injuries the way we have this year, from the goaltending on down. It's been a long season, a long 6 weeks of playoffs - but it doesn't feel that way now.

"Up until the last couple games, we really didn't have a healthy squad. It's something that we're not even used to."

The statistics are mind-boggling. Tonight is the Flyers' 100th game of the season. Over the first 82 games, the Flyers lost 205 man games to injury. Over the first 17 games of the playoffs, the Flyers have lost 51 man games to injury.

Simon Gagne returned from a broken toe in Game 4 against Boston. Michael Leighton returned from a severe high ankle sprain in Game 5 against Boston. Carter (fractured foot) and Ian Laperriere (brain contusion, et. al.) were healthy enough for Game 4 against Montreal.

No matter what they've endured, they are healthy enough now to have a top line of Gagne, Carter and Mike Richards - something they did not have during the regular season.

It also allows the Flyers' specialty-teamers to work their magic, instead of adding more pressure on the top players to fill roles they haven't played for most of the season.

A 6-week run in the playoffs is a lot of time to heal.

"I think we've got to consider ourselves fortunate that when you lose guys to injuries, you get them back," general manager Paul Holmgren said earlier this week. "It's certainly a bonus to get those guys back. We were able to continue on, which shows the resiliency and the galvanization of the other guys to win games that they needed to win when those guys were out of the lineup in order to get them back in."

Now, since dispatching Montreal on Monday night, the Flyers have had 4 complete days to rest, days without a 60-minute grind to worry about.

"I think everybody's ready to go," Chris Pronger said. "We've had 4 days off now to kind of practice and get ready and do all the media stuff and get it taken care of now. I think everybody's champing at the bit; we've had enough practice."

With healthy players, unlike past playoff runs, the Flyers also have broken through that proverbial wall - when they failed in the 2000, 2004 and 2008 conference finals - that has prevented players like Gagne from getting to the Cup finals.

And as much as things change, the more they stay the same. They are healthy now, but they play a style that won't keep them that way.

"We've got 2 weeks left in our season," Gagne said. "We just have to put everything out there. We want the big trophy in the end, that's what we're here for. We've got plenty of time after that for rest."

For more news and analysis, read Frank Seravalli's blog, Frequent Flyers, at