THEY TELL THE STORIES, fans of this team do, tell the stories of valiant efforts in face of all odds. They tell of Hexy carrying an injury-plagued team past a more talented Montreal team in 1987, tell of that rally from 3-1 to scare Wayne Gretzky and the greatest hockey team ever assembled in a seventh game. They still talk about what might have been if Leon Stickle wasn't so awfully human in 1980, what might have been if Keith Primeau had not been so hurt and worn down in that Game 7 against Tampa Bay in 2004.
They will talk, beginning now, about what might have been if Jeff Carter had converted a wide-open shot late in regulation last night, if Mike Richards had done the same halfway through the third period.
These are not laments of losers, for there is a pride of ownership in their retelling, as there undoubtedly will be about this 2010 run, which ended last night, here, the Stanley Cup finally appearing on Philadelphia ice, but not the way any of us imagined.
A 4-3 overtime loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, after Scott Hartnell's goal tied the game with just under 4 minutes remaining in regulation, after nearly forcing a seventh game with two golden opportunities in the overtime. Patrick Kane's wide-angle shot was reminiscent of Sidney Crosby's Olympic gold-medal winner, a surprise snap shot that caught goaltender Michael Leighton off-balance, a soft goal that crushed the hopes of Flyers fans that improbable and incredible would still somehow evolve into the impossible.
"The storybook," said Hartnell, the best Flyer on the ice last night, "ended the wrong way for us."
There are good reasons fans of this team sometimes act as if the team's last championship was more recent than 35 years ago. The reasons are seasons like this one, when the effort this time of the year is so unlikely herculean that when it is recounted, in the years ahead, listeners sometimes think it ended with the ultimate prize, not utter despair.
They will hear about a historic rally from a 3-0 deficit against Boston, about that April 11 shootout Sunday against the Rangers that ignited it all, about staring down elimination five times before finally succumbing to it last night.
They will hear how close it came to a seventh game, too, how destiny seemed to be back at its laptop when they tied the game late in the third.
"We just believed that this was supposed to be the way it goes," said Danny Briere, who set up that goal. "This is the way it was supposed to happen, scoring late in the third period to tie it. We just felt like we were meant to go back to Chicago."
They gave us more than anyone had a right to expect or believe, playing with a goaltender they had picked up for nothing, playing with a couple of broken-boned stars, leaning so heavily on a towering defenseman who just seemed to give out a little at the end.
They tried valiantly to match speed and effort with a lightning-footed Chicago team that turned out to be just as tough, just as gritty, as their Eastern Conference opponents - and a little deeper, too. Eight names showed up on the score sheet for the Blackhawks' first three goals last night. At one point, the shots were 17-3, Chicago. They had blocked 10 shots to Philadelphia's two. They seemed to learn from their earlier games in this series, when their love of the pretty play often sabotaged their own cycles and chances. As they had at home in Game 5, Chicago worked the edges exhaustively, maintaining pressure in the Flyer end for what seemed to be interminable stretches over the first two periods, scoring twice in a period the Flyers had dominated in winning their first three series.
"I think," Ville Leino said, "they were a little bit better over the last two games."
Still, form has been shaped and reshaped in this series more than once. The third period had been Chicago's in its three previous series. In these finals, it was the Flyers'. It's odd to describe the losing team this way, but if a few of those fickle bounces had landed, if Carter or Simon Gagne or Richards had just each converted one of their missed opportunities in this series, Lord Stanley would still be sitting in his chest this morning.
And you'd still be pumping yours.
The guess here is you will eventually, just as those who witnessed 1987 still do. They gave you 2 months of hockey no one believed they would, gave you a look at the trophy that has eluded this franchise since Bob Clarke was called Bobby.
It's been a long time, 35 years, since the Flyers won the Stanley Cup. But thanks to Flyers teams like this one, it can sometimes seem as if it was just yesterday.
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