Chokers no more, Bruins sweep Flyers to make conference final
BOSTON -- Forget the questions about the choke, that double-dose of 3-0 collapse that left the Bruins with a horrendous reference point for their franchise until Friday night.
This time the Bruins finished what they started and finished off the Philadelphia Flyers in four straight games with a 5-1 win on home ice. Now the questions about choking can change to questions about not being choked by the oddly configured defensive scheme of the Tampa Bay Lightning they will face in the next round.
"It feels great not to have to answer those questions," said Boston forward Milan Lucic, who put his personal fog to rest, too, breaking out of a 20-game goalless drought by scoring twice in Game 4. "Now, we can put that behind us."
Boston blew a pair of 3-0 leads against Philadelphia in last year's playoffs, dropping the last four games of the series after winning the first three and scoring the first three goals in the decisive seventh game at home only to see the Flyers answer with four. The collapse marked just the third time in NHL history that a team rallied to win a series after losing the first three games.
"It was hanging over our heads ever since last year," said Boston coach Claude Julien. "Even though we tried to turn the page, we were reminded every day."
Still, there was a clear difference in tone and temperament to this series and this Bruins' team as it pursued the fourth game. Boston hit Philadelphia's forwards early and often. Defenseman Zdeno Chara even took an extra penalty, refusing to skate away from a shoving match with Scott Hartnell and instead throwing a few gloved jabs Hartnell's way.
The Bruins earned their own power play after Dan Carcillo's foolish cross-check of Greg Campbell after a whistle. Boston then worked a quick cycle play in the Flyers' zone, and Nathan Horton set up Lucic for a conversion in the slot 12 minutes into the first period.
In contrast to Lucic's personal slump, his linemates, David Krejci and Nathan Horton, had no problem getting on the score sheet lately. After scoring just 13 goals in 75 regular-season games, Krejci had five in 10 games this postseason through Game 3. Krejci had scored the game winner in the first three games of the series, matching Bruins Mel Hill and Roy Conacher, each of whom scored three winners in separate series in 1939. Horton also had five in 10 games, including two other game-winners.
"It's great to have linemates like Krejci and Horton," said Lucic. "They always had my back. They always told me it's gonna come."
The Flyers evened the score at 13:22 of the second period, when Mike Richards intercepted an errant pass at his own blueline and sent a superb lead pass to Kris Versteeg, who beat Tim Thomas with a backhand.
The tie held up until early in third period. With just 2:42 gone, when Johnny Boychuk drove a 50-footer over from the right point over the glove of Flyers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, who had appeared in three previous games in these playoffs as a relief goaltender, as Brian Boucher continued to struggle. There was no truth to the rumor that Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon had a bet going with Flyer goalies to see who would have more relief appearances in Boston this week.
"You could feel it in the air after Johnny got that second goal," Lucic said later. "This organization hasn't had much success getting past the second round."
Even when they should have been showing desperation, the Flyers seemed to be on the slow end of races for the puck. With less than five minutes to play, Horton picked up a free puck at the Flyers line, spun away from Philadelphia defenseman Matt Carle and slid a backhand pass along the line to Lucic, who skated in alone on Bobrovsky and knocked the third goal past the netminder. Brad Marchand and Daniel Paille added empty netters for Boston in the closing minutes.
That leaves Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren to ponder what he should do about his goaltending conundrum in the offseason. In building perhaps the NHL's most balanced group of forwards this year, including the mid-season addition of Versteeg, Holmgren had added to a position of strength, while hoping that he could get by with an area of weakness.
Last season, the Flyers spun the goalie carousel for much of the season, before catching some lightning with third-stringer-turned-playoff-star Michael Leighton. But after picking up Leighton's contract this season, Holmgren placed him on waivers after he came back from injury for one mid-season game. Leighton cleared waivers and then played for the team's minor-league affiliate during the season. He played in two playoff games in the first round against Buffalo, allowing four goals on 29 shots. Of course the Flyer players said the right things after the game.
"It's unfair to blame the goalies," said forward James Van Riemsdyk. "You win as a team; you lose as a team. Hockey is a game where you need all 20 guys contributing and all 20 guys are to blame when the team doesn't do well."
Yes, but no other position will endure the scrutiny of the goaltending hole. It will be the 800-pound gorilla in the offseason until it is solved.
For Boston, it is time to look ahead. The Bruins haven't advanced to the Eastern Conference final since 1992. The next round will feature Boston's counter-attacking trap and Tampa Bay's 1-3-1 configuration that was too much for Washington to penetrate with any sort of frequency.
The Bruins also did not have word on the condition of forward Patrice Bergeron, their leading scorer in the playoffs who left the game with an undisclosed injury after being thumped on a check by Claude Giroux in the third period.
"It gets harder now," said Thomas. "We're playing teams that are playing better as we go."
More success would give the Bruins a chance to reward their fans for the loyal, patience and stomachaches that remained after last spring.
"Baseball, football, and basketball lately have done well here," said Julien. "Now it's time for hockey to step up and do the same thing. They have great fans here in Boston. They've been punished enough."