Saturday, May 29, 2010

Someone Must Be Blamed

“This is all your fault. All you had to do was win a shootout. If the Flyers win the Stanley Cup, I’ll never forgive you.”

These were the words I sent to a good friend and Rangers fan in the aftermath of the Flyers Mike Richards lifting the Prince of Wales trophy after eliminating the Montreal Canadiens and advancing as the Eastern Conference representation in the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals.

Forty-eight days ago the Philadelphia Flyers and the New York Rangers went to an overtime shootout in game number 82, the last of the regular season. With an overtime point apiece, both teams sat deadlocked at 87 points for the final seed of the Eastern Conference. The winner of the three round shoot out would advance to the postseason. The loser was done.

That was how close the Flyers came to not even making the dance. Tied at 1-1 in the third round, Claude Giroux beat Henrik Lundqvist, putting the season on Flyer’s goaltender Brian Boucher. He saved the Olli Jokinen backhand shot, and the Flyers made it into the playoffs on the last play of their regular season.

That was how close I was, as a Penguins fan deep in Flyers territory, from avoiding this whole ordeal.

Twenty-two days ago the Flyers entered overtime in game four of the second round series tied 4-4 with the Boston Bruins. After eliminating their Atlantic division rivals, the New Jersey Devils in the opening round, the Flyers had struggled mightily with the Bruins. After a tight overtime loss in the series opener in Boston, the Flyers dropped games two and three. Down three games to none, the Flyers entered overtime in game four in front of a home Wachovia Philly crowd, a single goal away from being swept into elimination.

In overtime the Flyers killed a two minute boarding call on Darroll Powe, and Boucher made nine saves. Each shot was a potential season ender. With less than six minutes left in the first overtime Mike Richards won a neutral zone face-off and the Flyers gained the offensive zone. Simon Gagne, back in his first game after injuring a toe in the Devils series, set up in front of Tuuka Rask at the top of the crease. Matt Carle unleashed a shot from a distance, Gagne redirected past the Boston goaltender and into the net, and once again the Flyers managed to stay alive.

A week later the Flyers skated back on to Boston Garden ice after an improbable comeback, overcoming the loss of Boucher, winning games five and six, and evening the series at three games apiece. But only fifteen minutes into the deciding game seven the Flyers again starring elimination in the face. Back-up goalie Michael Leighton had allowed three goals on 13 shots. Down 3-0, the Flyers had a seemingly uncermountable task in front of them when head coach Peter Laviolette called a timeout to address his team. And they responded.

After getting on the board with a late first period goal, the Flyers dominated the second period, tacking on two more goals, and tying the game at three. Seven minutes into the third period, the longest tenured Flyer Simon Gagne once again answered the call from the Philly faithful, netting a power-play goal, the eventual game-winner as the Flyers came back from being down 3-0 in both the series and the game to win both, 4-3.

Five days ago the Flyers completed the four games to one series win over the Montreal Canadiens, thanks largely to three shutouts by the back-up Leighton and the Flyers defense. Mike Richards lifted that Prince of Wales trophy, and the team that’s playoff involvement hinged on an overtime shootout in the final game of the regular season, a team that fell down three games to none and completed the unlikely comeback for the first time in 35 years, advanced to the Finals. Four wins away from engraving their names forever on Lord Stanley’s Cup.

Now my Rangers friend was quick to point out that I was actually pulling for the Flyers to beat the Habs. Which is a low-down dirty,vile, and slanderous aspersion to cast upon my good name.

It is also absolutely true.

Of course I wanted the trap-playing Habs to lose. The closer they got towards winning the Cup, the more and more we ran the risk of setting the trend, a la the 1995 Devils, for lackluster teams to try their hand at succeeding by playing the trap. And most importantly of all, this would have been all my Penguins fault. After all, they were ones who failed to eliminate Montreal in back-to-back games when they were up 3-2 in the series.

But at the cost of the Flyers making the Cup final? Someone has to be blamed.

Tonight Philadelphia takes on the Chicago Blackhawks in the opening game of the Cup series, a high-flying team completely unlike the kind of which they have seen over the past seven weeks. The Devils were 19th in goals this regular season, notching 217. The Bruins were 30th, last in the league, with a measly 196. The Canadiens were 26th with 210. The Western Conference Champion Blackhawks finished third in the league, amassing 262.

The Chicago Blackhawks have tallied four or more goals eight times this post-season. But then again, the Flyers have held opposing teams to less than two goals eight times this post-season as well. Unstoppable force, meet immovable object.

If you put any weight into the predictions of NHL experts, the Flyers are once again facing long odds. Which, based on the last forty-eight days on their calendar, has become the status quo.

Which has me, understandably a little nervous, and looking for someone to blame.

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