May 17, 2010

I was wrong, and I just can't live without you.

A little more than a month ago, I said the 2010 Philadelphia Flyers were "a collection of dead men walking, a group of underachievers that were expected to compete for a Cup and will now struggle to make it out of the first round."

At the time, I wasn't exaggerating. When the Flyers barely backed into a playoff spot, needing a shootout victory over the hated New York Rangers to ensure the no. 7 seed, no one seemed particularly excited. And then the Flyers upset the just-as-hated New Jersey Devils, which validated making the postseason but still seemed like a brief detour on the road to continued mediocrity. As the lowest seed, they were doomed to play the Washington Capitals or Pittsburgh Penguins -- the hockey equivalent of certain doom. Unless, of course, the Montreal Canadiens could beat the Caps in Game 7, but that would be ludicrous...

My phone wouldn't stop buzzing. I was trying to enjoy a late-night showing of Kick-Ass, but my pocket's vibrations proved far too distracting. "What the hell is going on?" I kept wondering. Finally, the movie ended and I popped my cell open. I had about a dozen texts, all concerning a hockey game I had forgotten about. I clicked through them one by one. Montreal had the lead, Montreal was holding the lead, the clock was ticking...oh wow. Montreal had won.

So instead of a match-up against the infinitely more talented Capitals, the Flyers got the Boston Bruins. A rugged, defensively oriented team that relied on the goaltending of rookie netminder Tuukka Rask. A long, painful series was a certainty, but did still I think the season was doomed? No, sir. These teams were pretty evenly matched, and if the Flyers' goal scorers rediscovered their touch, moving on was suddenly possible.

And then they lost a hard-fought Game 1. And Game 2. And Game 3, a particularly poor showing from the Broad Street Bullies, was perhaps the biggest disaster of all. The series, and the season, seemed to finally be over.

But then the Flyers won Game 4 in overtime, thanks to returning hero Simon Gagne. And the Bruins, unbelievably, decided to sleep through Game 5 and fail to take advantage of a very rusty Michael Leighton subbing in for the suddenly injured Brian Boucher. With the wind suddenly at their backs and the hockey gods smiling down, Leighton inspired a raucous Game 6 crowd at the Wachovia Center by resuming the steady play that earned him the Flyers goaltending gig in the first place and backstopping a 2-1 victory.

Game 7 was a reality. The Flyers had a chance to equal the greatest comeback in sports history: emerging victorious after a 3-0 series deficit.

I'll admit it; Boston's early 3-0 Game 7 lead destroyed the hope reserves I had built up. I chucked my Mike Richards jersey into the corner and loudly decreed that the Flyers didn't have the firepower to put three consecutive goals on the board. I started complaining about coming out slow for the biggest game of the year, for blowing all the momentum they'd gathered after three straight wins, for making me believe again and then kicking me square in the balls. My girlfriend, laying on the couch next to me, was probably ready to strangle me. Honestly, I was ready to strangle all the Flyers.

James van Riemsdyk's goal did more than give the Flyers a puncher's chance; it put the Bruins back on their heels. They had dominated the entire period, but their lead was down to a manageable two. All of a sudden, the Flyers started pressuring. The Bruins couldn't find an open passing lane, let alone a shooting lane. Leighton was calmly batting away harmless pucks and jumping on those that would otherwise cause trouble. A two-goal lead became one, and then zero. All tied up, thanks to the previously despised duo of Scott Hartnell and Danny Briere.

The rest of the game was a lot of quiet whispering, a lot of yelling, a lot of praying and, finally, a whole lot of jumping, dancing and cheering. The unthinkable had happened; actually, two unthinkables had happened. The Flyers had won the series, and the 2010 season was now officially a resounding success.

After the game, Peter Laviolette said, "Game 7's are for men, and our guys proved to be men today." Well, just two days after the grueling, historic Bruins series came to a close, the Flyers won a 6-0 laugher against the Canadiens, starting off the Eastern Conference Finals with as much of an exclamation point as they could muster. They're three wins away from the Stanley Cup Finals, three wins away from taking what seemed like a lost season and turning into one we'll really never forget. They are indeed men, in every sense of the word.

I thought the wake up call this Flyers team needed was to miss the postseason; turns out that couldn't have been further from the truth. Chris Pronger, Mike Richards, Kimmo Timonen, Briere; they were built for the playoffs. They just needed the chance to show it.

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