BUFFALO - From the outside, the Flyers crossed the line from fascinating to bizarre sometime late yesterday afternoon. They started their third goaltender of the series (Michael Leighton) and then promptly yanked their third goaltender of the series (Michael Leighton). Coach Peter Laviolette has done everything but replace the door on the end of the bench where the Flyers' backup goaltender sits with a turnstile.

Yet they are playing in a Game 7 against the Buffalo Sabres tomorrow night, somehow, some way, because Brian Boucher has managed to keep a professional head about him and to save his coach from an orgy of second-guessing. Somehow, some way.

"Isn't it always bizarre in Philadelphia for goaltenders?" he said, after the Flyers' 5-4 overtime victory. "It's nothing new. I'm pretty used to it. I know, when I came back here, what I was getting myself into. You just roll with the punches and deal with it."

Punches, yes.

"A few punches," he said. "A couple of uppercuts."

The first punch came when it was decided that Sergei Bobrovsky would start Game 1 of the series - despite Boucher having an excellent playoff record and the kind of experience Bobrovsky did not.

Bobrovsky was torched in the first period of Game 2 and Boucher replaced him. He played superbly until he allowed three goals in the first period of Game 5, two of them from impossible angles. Leighton replaced Boucher in Game 5 and played well. Then came the next punch, the real haymaker: Leighton would start Game 6.

"Absolutely, I wanted to get the start," Boucher said. "I felt like it's been a pretty good series aside from 3 minutes for myself. But that was the decision that was made. You have to stay ready and I was able to get back in there and, fortunately, it worked out."

He was able to get back in there because Leighton allowed three goals in the first period, two of them of the decidedly iffy variety. Boucher was back for the second period and stopped 24 out of 25 shots, and the one that got past him appeared to have deflected off teammate Sean O'Donnell's stick and dipped beneath Boucher's glove.

But how did he manage to keep his head in the game as Leighton went out there for the start? Other guys would have gone completely in the tank.

"Yeah," Boucher said. "[But] it was the Stanley Cup playoffs. You think about your teammates needing you, if that's the case. We're all in it together. That's what kept me motivated."

Truth in advertising here: I understood why Laviolette started Bobrovsky in Game 1, and I also understood why he started Boucher in Game 3. They both were the right moves. I didn't fully understand why he started Leighton yesterday, but I was pretty sure it was going to happen because of Leighton's very presence on the bench. He was not here for the airline miles. When they sneaked him through waivers, it was with a purpose. They obviously still like him, even after a season spent in the AHL, and Boucher provided the opening by allowing the two really bad goals in Game 5.

Most coaches won't play it this way, mostly because it invites second-guessing both from within and from outside the team. In this series, Laviolette has carefully engraved those second-guessing invitations; no stinking e-vites for him. His team saved him yesterday from a thorough barbecuing.

"You know, decisions are tough," Laviolette said. "It didn't go that way tonight for him, but I still think that Michael Leighton is a heck of a goaltender."

As for Boucher, Laviolette said, "I can't say enough about him. The guy wants to start tonight. He doesn't get [the start]. There's a reason why he did go on the bench, and it was because of what happened tonight - in case something like that happened, where we needed somebody to come on and close the door. He's done it so many times.

"Brian expects to start and I respect that about him. He had an opportunity tonight to come in and help this team live for another day, and he was tremendous."

After the game, the subject turned to redemption. It was, in truth, all Boucher wanted after Game 5, a chance to redeem himself. Now, there is this.


"Maybe a bit," Boucher said. "The job isn't done. We want to win this series. That would be the nice icing on the cake, to get into the next round. But I guess, from a personal standpoint, yeah, it feels good to have gotten back in there and kind of make the wrong right."

It has happened often enough, this flip-flopping, that somebody asked Boucher about the mechanics of the decision, if Laviolette offered any explanation when he was changing his goaltenders.

"No," Boucher said. "Just, 'You're in, you're out.' ''

Now, though, there will be no more mysteries, no more game-playing. For Game 7, Laviolette says Boucher is in.

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