Jeff Carter skated into last night's game the latest entry of the what's wrong with the Flyers handbook. Two goals in his last 10 games, seven goals in 31 playoff games, including the first two of this first-round series with the Buffalo Sabres. He could have had a hat trick in Game 1, his chances were that many. He could have put a couple more in Game 2, if he didn't whiff on pucks placed within his reach.
"Kind of snakebitten there," he said after last night's 4-2 Flyers' victory over Buffalo regained home-ice advantage. "Definitely a little weight off the shoulders to see one go in."
Hours after his coach had pulled him aside after the morning skate for a little emergency psychology, Carter scored the game's first goal last night, taking advantage of a fortuitous bounce to rip a shot past Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller at the tail end of a power play that had produced little offense. It hit a stick on the way in, wasn't the kind of pretty play that accounted for the majority of his team-leading 36 goals this season. But like the slugger who finds his way out of a batting slump with a seeing-eye single, the relief on Carter's face afterwards was of a man released from a chokehold.
Which, by the way, there were a few of last night.
But I digress. The early lead, at 4:42 of the first, dulled a raucous sellout crowd of 18,690, gave the Flyers some needed footing to survive what followed. Over a stretch that included the last half of that period and the early part of the second, Buffalo fired 14 unanswered shots at the Flyers net, at least half of them facilitated by soft and errant passing in their own end. The smell of those ugly, second-half, regular- season losses hung all over them.
But Carter's goal gave them a tiny cushion, and veteran goalie Brian Boucher made the coach look like a genius. He answered the mocking "Boo-shay" chants of Sabres fans by stopping 15 of 16 first-period shots, some routine, some spectacular, some with his team shorthanded for 6 of the period's final 9 minutes.
When Carter scored, the Flyers were outshooting the Sabres 6-3 and dictating play. Two minutes later, after a series of harrowingly sloppy turnovers in their own end, that dynamic flipped. Boucher stopped Patrick Kaleta after Matt Carle put it on his stick, and about a minute later Braydon Coburn leveled Kaleta behind his own net and was called for interference.
Kaleta suffered an upper-body injury and did not return.
The Flyers escaped a 4-minute power play that seeped into the second period without allowing Buffalo's go-ahead goal. Special teams, so torturously fickle in the second half, had produced one goal and prevented at least another. Moreover, the success in both areas brought back some long missing swagger, and by the middle of the second period, the Flyers had slowed down the frantic pace, and seemed like a team with poise and a plan.
"I thought we played a smart game," said Flyers coach Peter Laviolette. "No games are easy. You look around in the playoffs, the seeds don't mean anything. You've got great teams in here battling it out. I think our guys have played some pretty good hockey for three games."
It's not just that. The Flyers have re-established themselves in these three games, against a team that finished 16-4-4, finished as the NHL's hottest team. Roles are being defined, pieces are being identified. Claude Giroux has been spectacular on both ends of the ice. James van Riemsdyk has been a find. Scott Hartnell was again in the middle of everything, pried away a puck to set up Danny Briere with the Flyers' second goal. Nikolay Zherdev, inserted in the lineup for the first time in this postseason, scored what proved to be the game-winning goal at 16:44 of the second period.
And Mike Richards went up and down the ice, looked and played healthy, fed Zherdev that tap-in putt.
So are they cured? Have they officially left their past behind? Are they again playing like the team atop the conference for much of this season?
Well, there was that hairy first period. And they allowed a late goal in the second to make the third period that much more interesting.
But they didn't allow a goal in that final period. On the road, against a team that had not lost two straight games for 2 straight months. They could have won all three of these games with a bounce like the one Carter got last night.
"To be honest, I liked all of our games so far, " said Flyers coach Peter Laviolette.
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