PHILADELPHIA -- Hard as it is to imagine now, these Flyers came within a hair of missing these playoffs.
And yes folks, it is hard to imagine. In fact it's almost impossible from this vantage point. You look at this team and see size, strength, balanced scoring power, a top four on defense that is as good if not better than any and OK, even goaltending, and you have to wonder how it is that Philadelphia came within a shootout goal of working on its golf game somewhere.
|Simon Gagne scores one of the Flyers' six goals as Philly rolls. (Getty Images)|
Then again, maybe the Flyers' five-game run of the second-seeded New Jersey Devils in the opening round should have provided a clue. And if not, their historic comeback in the second round after losing the first three games to Boston had to.
The Flyers faced several challenges this season, some of them internal, some of them -- most notably several key injuries -- that were beyond their control. The team went through a coaching change at midseason when Peter Laviolette replaced John Stevens and more than a half-dozen goalies when it was a lot closer to fighting for the potential draft lottery pick than a shot at the Stanley Cup.
And with three more victories, the Flyers will get to the Finals for the first time since 1997.
"We've battled a lot of adversity for the whole year and I think doing that makes a difference at this time of year," said rookie James Van Riemsdyk, whose goal 30 seconds into the second period spelled the beginning of the end for Montreal. "Obviously, the way we did things this season probably wasn't ideal, but if you look at this team, you can see it's built for the playoffs.
"What we went through made us battle-tested, and I think we're hitting our stride now."
Funny thing is the Canadiens probably felt they were there as well after scoring huge seven-game triumphs against the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins in the first two rounds. Montreal started well, too, controlling large stretches of the opening period and outshooting the Flyers 13-6, but the Canadiens still headed to the dressing room down 1-0 on Braydon Coburn's goal.
It was still a game at that point, but things deteriorated rapidly for Montreal from that point in large part because the great goaltending from Jaroslav Halak, the strong team defense and the opportunistic offense -- the elements of their game that have brought the Canadiens this far -- were nowhere to be found on this night. It got so bad that Halak, a candidate for playoff MVP, was pulled midway through the second period after allowing four goals on 14 shots.
"We didn't have much fight," conceded defenseman Hal Gill. "We have to be a lot sharper, more committed and we have to play with a lot more edge."
That wasn't a problem obviously for the Flyers, who play that way as a rule, yet found a way to keep their emotions in check far better than Montreal. The Flyers took only four penalties and turned two of those taken by the Canadiens into goals.
"Every game tells a different story, but tonight we were definitely good on special teams," Coburn said. "I think the big thing is that we were able to carry a lot of momentum from [Game 7 against Boston] into this.
"The last series we had a long layoff and we came out flat, but this wasn't a lot of turnaround, just a day, so I think that helped. And [Michael Leighton] was just awesome."
Leighton is a journeyman goalie who has spent much of his pro career in the minors and was picked off the waiver wire by the Flyers in December. He had a great three-month run for Philadelphia before suffering a high ankle sprain, but he was activated last week when Brian Boucher went down. Leighton has allowed just four goals in four games, two of them shutouts.
The 28 shots he faced were more than his team produced, and the three-goal explosion in the second period made his life easier, but Leighton still had to come up with several timely saves, particularly in the first period, when the game was still in doubt.
"Yeah, they had a couple of good chances," he said. "But they don't have a big presence like Boston did in front of the net, so I was looking over some of their guys and getting to see some of the pucks and we were still blocking shots. "I just had to make the saves I should make in the first, and we kind of took over from there."