Give the Philadelphia Flyers a tightrope. Send them out on the ledge. Show them the precipice of destruction. And then watch them shine. It would have been enough for the Flyers to make some history just by coming back from a 3-0 deficit in games to win a series against the Boston Bruins, 4-3, but on Friday, they also spotted the Bruins three goals, then scored four times to pull off an improbable 4-3 victory in the final game of their Eastern conference semifinal series.
Just like that, the team that needed a shootout win against the Rangers in the 82nd and last tilt of the season merely to make the playoffs, the team that finished 18th in the league during the season with just 88 points, will now open the Eastern Conference finals at home Sunday against the Montreal Canadiens, who were only the 19th-best team.
That combination of regular-season ignominy has never reached such heights in North American sports history. Yes, the Flyers are simply not comfortable with prosperity. They'd much rather face the danger of Freddy Krueger and pull off an escape of Harry Houdini.
But it took a combination of heroics from Philly's hobbling hero Simon Gagne, who scored the game-winner on the power play with just 7:08 to go in the third period, and an awful gaffe by the home team that added misery to misery by taking a bench minor penalty to set up the goal. Depending on your perspective, it was either serendipity or horror. "I'm sure we'll have answers," said Boston defenseman Johnny Boychuk, "but right now it's just hard to find answers. I'm stunned. Simply stunned."
Boston began with a bang, grabbing a 3-0 lead on a goal by Michael Ryder and then a pair by Milan Lucic by the 14:10 mark of the opening period. The Bruins scored the first two goals on the power play, taking strong, aggressive runs at the net, pinching their defense along the boards and not looking at all like a team that was scared to lose a seventh game.
On the first goal, Zdeno Chara took a shot from the point that didn't get through, but the Bruins charged the net hard for the rebound. With Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timmonen picking up another player, Ryder was able to get a free pass to the free puck and collect Boston's first goal.
Soon after Daniel Briere took a foolish high-sticking penalty, Boston increased the lead after a minute of ineffective power-play time, Boston defenseman Dennis Wideman skated down the right side and sent a soft pass into the middle. As Lucic broke to the goal, Flyer forward Claude Giroux caught up to him late as Lucic converted the pass behind goalie Michael Leighton. Giroux then banged his stick on the top of the goal in disgust.
After Lucic scored an unassisted goal, it looked as though Leighton, the fourth-game replacement for an injured Brian Boucher, would lose his first game. But the Bruins seem to treat a 3-0 lead like a ticking time bomb. It was at that point that Flyers coach Peter Laviolette called a timely timeout. "The timeout was just to try to slow things down, to get us back in there," he said. "The biggest message was just to score one goal, get us on the board."
Until then, forward James Van Riemsdyk had given the Flyers very little, but he created and caught a break three minutes later by cutting in to shoot from the low slot. Boston's Mark Stuart went down to block a shot, but instead deflected it slowly as it dribbled tantalizingly past his goalie Tuukka Rask. It was Van Riemsdyk's first playoff goal and it kicked the Flyers into gear as much as it led the Bruins into a favorite's nervous posture.
In the second period, Scott Hartnell converted a strong cycle in the Bruins zone to bring the Flyers within one and Briere evened the score with a wraparound goal. It was Briere, more than others, who had talked a good game at times when his team was down this season. "You guys laughed at me all year when I said I thought we had a great playoff team, guys who responded when the game was on the line," he told reporters. "I thought we matched up well against the Bruins for some reason. The first two games in here could have gone either way. I just had a feeling if we could start creating our own bounces, we would be able to come back in the series. I don't know if the other guys believed it, but I certainly did.
"I've been down, 3-0 before and I never had that feeling as strong as it was against the Bruins."
Perhaps it was because the Bruins could never really scare anyone with a star sniper they didn't have or a goaltender who was already exceeding expectations after spending much of the year as a back-up or because Boston was only a No. 6 seed in its own right, but the Flyers were right to think another shoe could still drop.
The decisive gaffe occurred midway through the third period, when the Bruins were undone by another bench minor that has clouded the franchise before. This time, center Marc Savard headed for the Boston bench, but abruptly changed his mind. Vladimir Sobotka jumped on the ice to replace him, giving the Bruins an extra man. Lucic noticed the play right away from his left wing spot and tried to get off the ice to allow the Bruins to maintain the right number, but the players on the Flyers' bench began whacking their sticks against the sideboards and yelling for a penalty. The thumping did not go unnoticed and neither did Boston's extra player. With 8:50 to play in the period, Philadelphia went its third power play, setting up the heroics from Gagne, who is still not fully mended from the broken toe he suffered after blocking shot on April 20.
"Simon is an elite player in the National Hockey League," said Flyers coach Peter Laviolette. "He is a pure goal scorer and when he's at his best, he's hard to stop. He's got a gift and that gift helps our club win hockey games. And he's doing it under the toughest of circumstances. That's what the Stanley Cup is. If you make it to the end and you reach to grab that thing, you know you've sacrificed. You play hurt, you play injured, you do anything to move on. If those guys aren't willing to sacrifice like Simon did today, you might not get there. The Stanley Cup is about sacrifice. You have to be willing to do that."
The sacrifice and circumstance left both teams on opposite sides of history.
For those fatalistic Bruins' historians, this faux pas called to mind the most infamous too-many men penalty ever recorded. That one was also in a seventh game and it also buried Boston. The year was 1979 and the Bruins were leading the then three-time champion Canadiens, 4-3 in the third period, when Stan Jonathan and Don Marcotte, two Boston forwards, couldn't decide who should be on and who should be off. Don Cherry, the Bruins' colorful coach, was forever labeled, if unfairly, as the man who couldn't count to five, because his team got slapped with a bench minor that led to Guy Lafleur's tying goal in the closing minutes. The Canadiens went on to win that game and their fourth straight cup. The Bruins haven't won one since.
Only twice in the NHL annals did a team rally from a 3-0 deficit to win a best-of-seven series. The Maple Leafs did it against the Red Wings in 1942 and the upstart Islanders did it against the Penguins in 1975, their first year in the post-season. That year, the Flyers were nearly on the other side of a 3-0 rally as the Islanders came from 3-0 down again to even their very next series against Philadelphia before falling in the seventh game of the East finals in the old Spectrum.
"We've been resilient all year," said Flyers captain Mike Richards, "whether from injuries or being down in the series. If we're going to go down, we're going to go down swinging." This swing of fortunes will be hard to match.