THE NUCLEUS of a sports team gets only so many chances to define itself. Injuries intervene. Pucks bounce oddly. A better opponent gets in the way. Age happens. And then, almost always sooner than anyone ever predicts, it is time to trade away a piece or two in an attempt to create a better karma.
We have all seen it happen - and that is not to say that it would have happened if the Flyers had lost Game 7 against the Buffalo Sabres. In fact, it would not have happened. But the feeling, from the coach to the general manager, from the first forward to the third goaltender - yes, the third goaltender - would have been of emptiness, of waste.
One of a precious handful of opportunities would have been thrown away, trashed.
Instead, after this Game 7, the dream lives - in wildly spectacular fashion. Because this Flyers team, this nucleus, seems to know no other way.
Or, as Claude Giroux said, "It's never according to plan. We like suspense."
In the last two seasons, they have played seven games in which they have faced elimination and they have now won six of them. Both numbers, both the seven and the six, are each amazing in their own way. But they define this group now. Their ability to grasp that final vine and pull themselves back up over the edge of the cliff is what they are.
"We've gone through a lot as a group," captain Mike Richards was saying. "A lot of us have played together for a lot of years now, been through a lot. We always feel that whatever the time of the season, if it's a big game, we always seem to step up. We have players like Danny [Briere] and Claude, just big-time players who score big-time goals and play big-time minutes, that step up in situations like this. It's nice to see."
A Flyers team that had dominated the Sabres everywhere but in goal, dominated them for the better part of 2 weeks, won the final game and won the series with a resounding, 5-2 victory at Wells Fargo Center. And history will record the ultimate irony: that in a series in which the Flyers used three different starting goaltenders and saw all of them yanked from games at different times, the Flyers completed their task by chasing Buffalo goaltender Ryan Miller from the net in the third period.
This is a Flyers team that had to deal with a late-season malaise, the loss of defenseman Chris Pronger (for more than 6 weeks, until Game 6 of this series) and some truly bizarre goaltending against the Sabres. Yet it managed to overcome it all, surviving two elimination games in the process.
The Flyers do not seem capable of their best until the circumstances demand it. Except for goaltending, they were the better team for most of the time in most of the games of the series. But they were not at their very best until three things happened in Game 6: when they went back to Brian Boucher in the second period , and when they got Pronger back to reenergize their power play in the same game, and when they stared again at the cliff.
"I think it just boils down to the heart and character in the room," Pronger said. It is a cliché on overdrive, but it also happens to be true. There is something about this group that thrives under pressure.
"[It's] guys understand that you have to have a never-say-quit attitude," Pronger said. "From the drop of the puck to the end buzzer, you have to be prepared to sacrifice - and we were able to do that tonight."
The next round remains a mystery; Boston, Pittsburgh or Tampa Bay all are possibilities. But that is for tomorrow. This night was about another game, another elimination game, another opportunity for this Flyers nucleus to build a bit more on its legacy.
A loss would have sent them home for a summer full of regret - because they were the better team, and they would have blown it because of a goaltending calamity that no one could have predicted.
It would have been a bitter waste of another year.
Instead, somehow, they live on; two more elimination games, two more wins. And as Claude Giroux said, "There's probably a good movie about it."
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