Thursday April 15th, 2010

NEWARK, N.J. -- Before the puck dropped on the Devils-Flyers series Wednesday night, New Jersey head coach Jacques Lemaire proclaimed: "Already forgotten. The playoffs are a new season."

He was talking about his team's 1-4-1 record against Philadelphia this season, but a few hours later that statement seemed more appropriate for the made-it-by-the-skin-of-their-teeth Flyers, who've battled with inconsistency all season and only earned their playoff berth three days before their playoff opener in New Jersey... in Game 82 of the regular season... in a shootout.

This was a Philadelphia team that many had chosen to conquer the East before Game 1 was ever played back in October, but that by mid-December was slogging, trailing the conference-leading Devils by as much as 21 points. Every club goes through a season narrative, peaks and valleys that ultimately make or break teams. For the Flyers, the highs and lows were extreme. Coach John Stevens got the boot three months into the season, and rumblings of unrest in the dressing room became a daily topic of conversation on the Philadelphia sports talk radio, blogs and message boards. Just before the NHL broke for the Winter Olympics in February, the Flyers won six of eight; when they returned, they went 5-7-3 and found themselves quickly slipping off the playoff bubble.

"We've touched rock bottom, we've played the worst hockey this team can play. We've played good hockey," Flyers forward Ian Laperriere said. "We've felt both."

But here, in the playoffs, the Flyers have been presented with a clean tableau, and one that doesn't carry the scuffmarks of expectation.

"[There is] less pressure, for sure," Laperriere said. "You go out there and nobody sees us winning against New Jersey. I welcome that, but everybody knows that in the league parity is [such that] nobody knows what can happen. And we believe in that."

Playoffs are full of the unexpected; the unlikely hero in this game emerged from the Flyers' net, the team's biggest sore spot all season. No less than five goalies saw time in net for the Flyers this season and seven goalies logged miles with the team over the course of the season. Asked if he could name all seven of them on the spot, Laperriere shook his head no. With season starter Ray Emery and mid-season pickup Michael Leighton out for the season to injury, Brian Boucher is the last man crouching. And, in Wednesday night's game, he rose to the occasion, robbing Devils sniper Ilya Kovalchuk with a quick glove early in the game, and scrambling in his crease looking to cover a loose puck. The 33-year-old journeyman stopped 23 Devils shots on the way to the 2-1 victory at the Prudential Center.

"The last two or three weeks have basically been playoff games for us," said Flyers center Jeff Carter. "We put ourselves in a tough position and had to battle in every game just to get here. So, you kind of build momentum off of it, I guess."

They haven't played a game that was decided by more than two goals since March 28 (a 5-1 win against New Jersey, incidentally), and have had to work through the do-or-die mindset for the last month. The Devils clinched their playoff spot on March 27, and have been jockeying for position and working on the things like the power play, all with eyes on making a deep run in the playoffs.

But the New Jersey went 0-for-5 on the power play. Some of the credit is due to the Flyers' killers, Blair Betts and Laperriere, hard-workers who don't flinch at physical play or taking a shot to the body (or the face, for that matter). The Devils, got off just four shots on Boucher with the man advantage and perhaps trying too hard to force a play or look for an open man.

"We have to shoot the puck more, I think, because we're moving around well and we're just sometimes overplay," Kovalchuk said before the game. "If you've got a chance to shoot, you've got to take the shot. We have so many good shooters and guys that can make a play, always guys in front. ... We just need to play our game and don't think to set up anybody else."

This is proof the Devils are aware of the issue, but that didn't stop the crowd at the Rock from reminding them. When Philadelphia's Oskars Bartulis picked up a double-minor for high-sticking early in the third period, chants of "Shoot the puck!" echoed through the arena after New Jersey burned through half of the penalty without a shot on goal.

"We have to work a little more on the power play, try to get some goals," Lemaire said after the game. "Special teams in the playoffs are really important."

Though they outworked the Flyers for most of the game and outshot them, 20-14, the Devils will have to put even more pressure on the Boucher and fight for every inch of ice against a big and fierce Philadelphia team.

"It's the first team that wins four -- that hasn't changed," said Lemaire. But the clean slate has. The Devils will have to work from behind if they want to break their streak of first-round playoff exits.

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