Phil Sheridan: Team embraces the impossible

Posted: May 15, 2010

BOSTON - Impossible wasn't tough enough for them. The Flyers had to stack a three-goal deficit on top of the three-games-to-none mountain they'd already climbed, just to see if they could overcome that, too.

Stunningly, they did just that. The Flyers finished the Ultimate Comeback in this playoff series with a spectacular comeback in a hypertensive Game 7 Friday night.

Destiny on Ice continues its run Sunday night, when the Flyers open the Eastern Conference finals - at home, of all places - against the Montreal Canadiens.

This can't be happening, but it is.

"This is like a storybook," said Ed Snider, the man who brought hockey to Philadelphia. "How can you go down, 3-0, in their barn and come back and beat them, 4-3? How can you come back from 0-3 in games and beat them 4-3? These guys are unbelievable. They just won't quit. They're incredible."

It happened because Simon Gagne chose team over caution, returning for Game 4 despite a surgically repaired toe. All Gagne did was score the overtime game-winner to avert a sweep in Game 4, net a pair of goals in Game 5, and then fire the series-winner past Boston's Tuukka Rask in Game 7.

"I was so happy at the end," Gagne said. "We just put everything on the line. There is no better feeling."

It happened because Brian Boucher and then Michael Leighton, two men who have experienced more disappointment than ice hockey in their careers, turned in improbably sound goaltending. Leighton looked wobbly in allowing three quick goals Friday night, then shut down Boston the rest of the game.

His third-period save on Marc Savard, firing from between the face-off circles, belongs on the list with anything Bernie Parent or Ron Hextall ever did to save a playoff game.

"To his credit," defenseman Chris Pronger said, "that shows how strong-willed and strong-minded [Leighton] is. He doesn't have a quit button."

That goes for this whole team. After whittling the three-game deficit down by focusing on each game as it came along, the Flyers were reduced to focusing on just scoring a goal. Just one goal.

It happened because, down 3-0, coach Peter Laviolette called a time-out and settled his players down.

"After the time-out," Leighton said, "he said to me, 'Leights, settle down. Shut the door. We're going to score some goals.' "

"Lavy called a time-out and said, 'Let's just focus on one goal at a time,' " Gagne said. " 'Let's try to get one goal in the first and then try to tie the game. Then they might start to get nervous.' "

Laviolette's uncanny aura of calm has been one of the keys to this remarkable comeback. He has been Coach Placid for this particular Miracle on Ice. For each step, each game, Laviolette has asked his team not to look at the historic record on 0-3 series deficits. Just ask themselves, "Can we beat the Boston Bruins tonight?"

They found ways to answer yes: in overtime in Game 4; with a dominating Game 5 that planted real doubt in the Bruins' minds; by withstanding a Boston onslaught to hold on in Game 6.

Then they came out in Game 7, the game that would make it all worthwhile or all for nothing, and got overrun. The Bruins scored two power play goals courtesy of two bad Flyers penalties. Then a sloppy play at the offensive end sprang Milan Lucic for an unassisted goal and that 3-0 lead.

"Game 7s are for men," Laviolette said. "Our guys proved themselves men tonight. I'm really proud. I'm proud of the way they fought and I'm proud of the way they represented this organization."

The youngest of them, James van Riemsdyk, scored that first goal. A deflected shot trickled past Rask and it was 3-1 going into the first intermission.

Then Scott Hartnell and Danny Briere, who committed those first-period penalties, redeemed themselves with goals in the second period.

So it was 3-3, in games and on the scoreboard. After 22 periods, including a couple of overtimes, this series was dead even. Except that it wasn't. The Bruins, with the weight of a historic collapse across their shoulders, were squeezing their sticks. The Flyers were embracing their destiny, and they were doing it at Boston's expense.

A truly incredible penalty for too many men on the ice gave the Flyers one last power play.

"That may be why they had too many men on the ice," Gagne said. "You get nervous and you make a bad change. That brought us to the power play. We were able to score."

Just like that, Destiny on Ice skates on into the NHL's final four. The Flyers just won the four most improbable games in their history. Four more and they play for the Cup.

Impossible? Tell them that.


Contact columnist Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844 or psheridan@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/philsheridan.

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