In Game 3 Monday night, it seemed like every time the Sabres slipped on a banana peel, one of the cooler, calmer, more experienced Flyers was there to pounce on the puck and turn the mistake into a goal.
"We were opportunistic on our chances tonight,c" is the way goalie Brian Boucher put it.
After two very different games in Philadelphia, this series came into sharper focus in Game 3. It now looks and feels like the Flyers have a handle on things. They reclaimed the home advantage they lost in Game 1, thanks to a combination of good moves and good luck.
Coach Peter Laviolette played his hunch and went with Boucher in goal. It worked for the short term, which is all Laviolette could bank on at this point. Whether Boucher is the guy who can win the 14 more games necessary to raise the Stanley Cup is a matter for another day.
For this game, he was in control for all but two split-second intervals. Buffalo scored one goal in the first period and one in the third. In between, the Sabres applied some intense pressure but were not able to rattle Boucher.
The epitome of his composure came during the game's most frenzied moments. The Sabres had a five-on-three advantage in the third period. They needed just one goal to tie the game and take momentum. A shot snapped a strap on Boucher's mask. With bodies flying all around his crease, Boucher pulled the mask off and let it fall to the ice.
The referee stopped play. The 18,000 or so Buffalonians in attendance were outraged as they watched a couple of replays on the scoreboard screen. There was no way to see the broken strap. It looked as if Boucher had found a way to stop the circus music and allow his teammates to regroup.
It worked out. The Flyers killed both penalties and held on to that lead.
If Boucher came off the bench to play well in a big game, then Nik Zherdev came from much further. Waived by the team back in February, a healthy scratch for the first two games, he was in uniform only because Andreas Nodl got hurt. He will probably be in uniform again Wednesday.
Zherdev scored what proved to be the game-winning goal. It was one of those sloppy plays the Sabres make in their own zone. Kris Versteeg pounced on a loose puck along the boards and flung it over to Mike Richards. The captain drew a defender away by faking a shot, then slid the puck through the slot to Zherdev.
It wasn't the toughest goal Zherdev ever scored, but it may have been the biggest. Now you wonder if he can be this year's Ville Leino. A year ago, Leino didn't play in the first four postseason games. When he dressed because of an injury, he took advantage of the opportunity and became a force on Danny Briere's line.
Those are the kinds of things that have to happen for a team to make a long playoff run. Players emerge from the shadows. Injured players get well. The coach makes decisions that play out as he hoped.
It helps, too, when your best players start to produce.
Jeff Carter, who had that woe-is-me expression after a couple of Ryan Miller saves in the first two games, fired a puck past the lanky goalie for the Flyers' first goal.
"I had a lot of chances the first couple games," Carter said. "I was a little snakebitten there. It's definitely a little weight off my shoulders."
"Once we got that first goal," Richards said, "we started playing with confidence."
Richards created Zherdev's goal, creating some space and then placing the pass where Zherdev almost couldn't help but score. But the captain was also on the ice with defensemen Braydon Coburn and Kimmo Timonen to kill that crucial five-on-three.
Briere scored another goal against his former team. This time, Scott Hartnell was the Flyer who pounced on a Sabres mistake - Chris Butler overskated the puck behind his own net - and feathered the perfect pass. Briere fired it past the diving Miller.
The Sabres took 11 more shots. They seemed quicker and made more big hits. Miller is a proven, elite goaltender. But when the circus music finally stopped, the Flyers had control of the puck and the series.
Follow columnist Phil Sheridan on Twitter at twitter.com/SheridanScribe.
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