PHILADELPHIA -- They had to do it the hard way. Of course they did. It has almost become expected of the Flyers during this most improbable of seasons. Maybe more so during this remarkable playoff run.
Then again, maybe that's the way it has to be for Philadelphia. Maybe despite the immense level of talent and depth this often under-appreciated team has, scratching and clawing seems to be the only way it can get things done. Maybe that makes it all the more worthwhile.
"Yeah, I think that's why it's special and why we believe in our team," forward Ian Laperriere said after the Flyers beat the Montreal Canadiens 4-2 to win the Eastern Conference finals in five games. "You know we touched rock bottom during the year and it wasn't fun around here, but sometimes when you do that it makes your team stronger and obviously it did."
On this night it had to. The Flyers seemed to have the Canadiens right where they wanted them -- with their backs against the wall in a hostile road environment and with really nothing going their way for more than two periods. And apparently that was the problem.
Philadelphia had already managed to get over the early shell shock of Brian Gionta scoring in the opening minute for Montreal. The Flyers tied the game less than four minutes later when captain Mike Richards made a great play to recover a loose puck after he and Canadiens defenseman Roman Hamrlik crashed into goalie Jaroslav Halak when Philadelphia was shorthanded.
• Recap: Flyers 4, Canadiens 2
From that point on, the Flyers took control. They went ahead in the second period when Arron Asham -- not someone known for his goal-scoring prowess -- used a backhand shot to beat Halak in close. Philadelphia added to the advantage when Richards set up Jeff Carter with a neat pass from behind the net.
Philadelphia was dominating the proceedings by that point, beating the Canadiens with their speed in one-on-one battles and in the little areas like the faceoff circle. Michael Leighton was solid in goal, too. So in essence the Flyers looked ready to lock things down and poised to win this clash of Cinderella playoff teams as they entered into the final frame with the two-goal lead.
But, of course, that would have been too simple for a team that needed a shootout win on the final day just to make the playoffs, and had to rebound from a 3-0 deficit to win the previous series. So instead, they gave the Canadiens a little life, which is not necessarily a good idea against a team that had already come back from similarly desperate situations in two earlier postseason rounds.
The Flyers got sloppy behind their own net early in the period and lost control of the puck long enough to allow Scott Gomez to score his first goal in 18 games and suddenly it became a matter of survival for Philadelphia.
|Mike Richards: 'When the chips have been down, it seems like we get better and obviously, we play well as a team.' (AP)|
They had their chances though. The Flyers helped the process too with their dominant defenseman Chris Pronger taking a double minor for high sticking just a few minutes after Gomez scored and then icing the puck six times in the final few minutes that kept forcing faceoffs to be taken deep in their own end.
But Leighton made some of his best stops of the game in the final moments, two of them against Gionta. And then Carter finished Montreal with an empty netter after Richards had bowled over a Canadiens defender to clinch a date with the Chicago Blackhawks for the Stanley Cup, and given the way things have gone, maybe with destiny.
"It's tough to say that right now," Richards said. "We have a great team, we have a lot of belief in our team. When the chips have been down, it seems like we get better and obviously, we play well as a team.
"So we're fully confident. I don't want to say destined or anything, but we feel we have a good chance, obviously; and we're going to lay it all out there."
Give the Canadiens their due for that as well. Their run through the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins was in many ways just as remarkable as Philadelphia's, but in the end, there was simply little left in the tank.
"It was just one of those series," Gomez said. "At this point, no one is going to run out of gas; it is just the fact that we are playing for the ultimate prize here. To get to the ultimate prize you know, you are going and you would never use that as an excuse.
"Now it is the easy part to say we could have done this, could have done that but hey, we threw it all out there. The Flyers played a great series and they got us."
But it wasn't easy.