Phil Sheridan: Flyers are a team built for postseason
CHICAGO - The shorthand on the Stanley Cup Finals matchup is partly right. Flyers? Great story. Blackhawks? Great team. The Flyers' trek from coaching change to last-ditch playoff berth to uber-comeback against Boston to Game 1 of the Finals has been a terrific sports story. It had everything: star power, suspense, rallying from the brink of elimination, dramatic returns from serious injuries.
CHICAGO - The shorthand on the Stanley Cup Finals matchup is partly right.
Flyers? Great story. Blackhawks? Great team.
The Flyers' trek from coaching change to last-ditch playoff berth to uber-comeback against Boston to Game 1 of the Finals has been a terrific sports story. It had everything: star power, suspense, rallying from the brink of elimination, dramatic returns from serious injuries.
The shorthand isn't wrong about these Blackhawks, either. They are a very good young hockey team that raised its level of play to sweep the San Jose Sharks in the Western Conference finals.
But the talking points fail to mention that the Flyers are a championship-caliber team, too. They are. This is not some mediocre team getting hot at the right time. It's a very good team that got hot after underachieving for too much of the regular season. That seventh seed was the mirage, not the six weeks that followed.
Danny Briere was sort of the Jimmy Rollins of these Flyers - and not just because he's his team's smallest player. Just as Rollins made a run of setting the tone for the Phillies, it was Briere who said in early April that these Flyers, as a team, were built for the playoffs.
"We're a team that's built for the big game," Briere said the other day. "A lot of character guys and when everything was on the line, we seem to get the best out of everybody. It's hard to explain. I don't know why it's like that. I wish we could play the same way for 82 games and every single game in the playoffs. But I like the fact that, when things are on the line and we need a big performance, it just seems like everybody is on board."
It's true. Briere had an OK regular season. He has been electrifying in the postseason. Claude Giroux again showed flashes, but it was hard for the second-year forward to adjust to Peter Laviolette's very different system. In the playoffs, Giroux has been remarkable. Ville Leino was a virtual nonentity who has emerged as a key player.
There's already a core of rock-solid guys like Mike Richards, Chris Pronger, Kimmo Timonen, and Simon Gagne. There are invaluable role players like Blair Betts, Ian Laperriere, and Darroll Powe. Mix in that extra spark from Briere and Giroux, stir in the emotional lift when Gagne, Laperriere, and Jeff Carter returned from injuries and you wind up with a balanced, talented, gritty team.
The Flyers are built, it turns out, quite a bit like a certain team from Chicago.
"If you look on paper, the teams are very evenly matched," Flyers captain Richards said Friday. "They're very evenly built, same sort of design of players, too. It's just going to be who plays most consistent for the longest."
The Flyers belong here. So drop the puck already.
"We can't wait to get it started, to start skating, to get that physical contact, the battles," Briere said Friday. "I can't wait to start playing, to start the hatred going a little bit. Right now, everybody's nice to each other. I can't wait until it feels like this is going and there's no love any more."
The Flyers and Blackhawks met just once this season, a game the Flyers won, 3-2. There aren't any built-up animosities or simmering grudges to draw on from the regular season.
"It's hard to do when you have a team that you don't play very often," Richards said. "Something might come from being cocky or arrogant in the media, but I don't think that's the case on their part. They're a very classy team."
But considering how high the stakes are, and how desperate each of these teams is to impose its will on the other, things should heat up microwave-fast.
"I'm sure it's not going to take very long," Richards said. "It's going to be heated and physical, so I'm sure it's not going to take very long."
It is the Flyers' way to try to wear an opponent down over the course of a series. The Blackhawks reached this point by winning three series against more freewheeling Western Conference teams. This series will hinge on whether the Flyers can prove a big enough speed bump to throw the Hawks off their game. They did that to Montreal. This is a better team, but it's a team the Flyers can and will compete with.
"It was a matter of us finding our identity as a team," Pronger said. "I think everybody in that locker room is playing for one another and understands what's at stake. Really, it's just knowing in the locker room you're going to win every game you go out for, having that sense that you can win."
If the Flyers can win this, there will be no doubt they're a great team. They'll still be a great story.