Tuesday May 25th, 2010

PHILADELPHIA -- Why shouldn't the Flyers spit in superstition's eye? Why shouldn't captain Mike Richards end the suspense of whether to acknowledge or touch the Prince of Wales Trophy by grabbing it almost before NHL rep Bill Daly was ready to present it to him? Some say there is a jinx in touching any trophy other than the Stanley Cup, but if a jinx could have sunk the Flyers, it would have happened by now.

The team that was one shootout away from missing the playoffs entirely and one overtime goal away from being swept by Boston, the squad that needed to rally from three goals down to the Bruins in a deciding road game, yeah, that team could have been derailed by something far less imposing than a jinx. A good exhale could have done it. Maybe a mere hiccup.

Instead, the Flyers, a team of belief and will, of depth at every position, especially goaltender, battled injuries, a coaching change, and a 29th-place midseason standing in the league to rally itself into the Stanley Cup Final against the Blackhawks. The Flyers' 4-2 victory against the Canadiens on home ice in Game 5 sealed the result, but it was clear long ago that very little can strike fear into this squad.

"It's not the trophy we want," Richards said, "but we haven't done anything conventional all year, so we'll go against the grain one more time."

It was a day to celebrate goaltending in Philadelphia. Michael Leighton made 25 saves and surrendered only two goals in his first not-shutout win of the series. It was a day to celebrate the workhorse everymen who always seem to populate successful Flyers teams. Arron Asham played just eight minutes but scored once and had three other breakaways or solo forays at Montreal's beleaguered goalie Jaroslav Halak. It was also a day to celebrate penalty killing, which the Flyers have elevated to an 87 percent success rate in the playoffs and it produced another goal by Richards. It was a day to celebrate that quiet captain, who hit, scored, assisted twice and may have sold some popcorn at the concession stands when nobody was looking.

For the Flyers, who won their last Stanley Cup in 1975, it was a time to enjoy the fruits of their tireless and consistent work. "All year long, this team battled with a belief that there would be this kind of payoff at the end," said forward Scott Hartnell. "We're not exactly there yet, but we're closer than a lot of people thought we'd be."

In fact, the Flyers' long road to the finals revealed itself in numerous ways on Monday night. When John Stevens was fired head coach on Dec 4, the team was 13-11-1. He was replaced by Peter Laviolette, who had led Carolina to the Cup in 2006. Laviolette instituted an aggressive, disciplined, up-tempo style that took the struggling Flyers a while to master.

While learning the new system, they fell to 15-18-2 on Dec. 21 and sustained a five-game losing streak later in the season as they grew accustomed to new roles. "If you had looked at us eight, 10 games into Peter's [tenure], it wasn't pretty," said Pronger. "Once guys understood the commitment and responsibility, we began to gel, but it didn't happen overnight."

In Game 5, they seemed to swarm the Canadiens when they needed to and protect their goaltender when they had to. They failed on four power-play chances and gave Montreal windows of opportunity, but assumed control early and earned their touches of the trophy. "When we needed to, we made the big plays," said defenseman Chris Pronger. "That's what we've been doing more and more the whole playoffs."

Though the Flyers have been preaching better starts after a series of poor opening shifts, the Canadiens got on the board in the first minute. Pronger made a long outlet pass that failed to connect in center ice. The Canadiens turned the puck back into Philadelphia's zone and Scott Gomez worked a sharp two-on-one to set up Brian Gionta for a quick snap shot from the slot that beat Leighton through the five hole at 59 seconds.

The Flyers actually generated more chances in the first period with three shorthanded stints than with their two power plays. Soon after Kimmo Timonen took a roughing penalty for taking a dumb retaliatory swipe at Gomez behind his own net at 3:11, Giroux flipped a pass towards center ice, allowing Richards, arguably the league's most dangerous penalty-killer, to give chase. As Halak skated out 30 feet to play the puck, he collided with Roman Hamrlik who was coming back to help. The puck popped free and Richards had ample time to slide a backhander into an open net to tie the score.

That goal seemed to stomp out the Canadiens will for a good chunk of the game, and the idea of another series comeback began to fade as the night wore on. Shortly after another Montreal power play, Asham pushed the puck past Habs' defenseman Hal Gill to create another shorthanded bid. Asham coaxed Halak to the ice with a fake on his backhand, then flipped a forehand shot over the crossbar and into the netting behind the goal. The chance wouldn't be the last for the workmanlike forward.

Three minutes into the second period, Montreal's Andrei Kostitsyn made a bad pass that failed to clear his own zone. Flyer defenseman Matt Carle kept it in from the point and sent a hard pass to Asham who was alone with Halak in the slot. Asham again faked to the backhand and this time slid the puck along the ice into the open corner behind Halak.

The Flyers increased the lead just 84 seconds later. Timonen took the puck from the point, skated to the left corner and fed Richards behind the net. Without a hesitation, the Flyers' captain made a one-touch pass to Jeff Carter who banged the puck in from the slot to make it 3-1.

The Canadiens had a good chance to get back into the game in the opening minute of the third period when Braydon Coburn misplayed a bounce off the boards behind his goal, leaving Gomez alone with Leighton. But Gomez, whose one playoff goal was standing out as one of Montreal's true disappointments in the postseason, poked a weak backhand at Leighton, who turned it away and preserved the two-goal lead.

The Habs finally got one back at 6:53 in the third. Showing early and appropriate desperation with his team struggling to score, defenseman PK Subban pinched all the way in from his point position and poked a pass from behind the Flyers' net out to Gomez, who finally collected just his second goal of the playoffs by cashing in a quick swipe from the slot.

Two minutes later, Subban again caused the Flyers some misery when he drove deep into their zone, spun with the puck and drew a double minor for high-sticking when he was clipped by Pronger. The Flyers allowed just one shot on goal during 2:23 of those minutes before Glen Metropolit took a minor for tripping in the offensive zone. Like the Flyers, the Habs were blanked all night with the man advantage.

"They played well," said Montreal coach Jacques Martin, "but the difference was just that we couldn't score enough and special teams were the difference in the game."

As they had for much of the series, the Canadiens lacked a consistent net presence in front of Leighton. But give credit to the Flyers for that. They had jump on the puck and away from it, attending to little things as good Flyer teams often do. "Those small things add up," says Flyers forward Danny Briere. "Now they've added up to being one step closer to the goal."

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