Cliffhanging Flyers have Hawks right where they want them
Shoddy goaltending may ultimately kill the Flyers, but adversity will not
The dressing room friction upon Chris Pronger's arrival is ancient history now
The Flyers must do a better job with matchups and cocooning Michael Leighton
PHILADELPHIA -- For the Chicago Blackhawks, the security threat level is distinctly orange.
In a Stanley Cup Final with little rhyme, reason and goaltending, there is no reason to suspect that the Hawks' joyride two days ago was anything more than an aberration, a gaudy one-off that will have no carry-over into Game 6 against a team that bounces back like Wile E. Coyote after he falls off a cliff.
"You've seen what they've done all season long," Chicago center Patrick Sharp said. "Especially this series, no lead is safe ... I know we expect no difference going into (Game 6). It doesn't matter if it's elimination game or not, it's going to be a tough game."
As Flyers coach Peter Laviolette astutely noted, there are momentum swings within the course of a game, but each playoff game is a self-contained entity. Like in baseball where momentum begins and ends with tomorrow's starting pitcher, tonight's match in the Wachovia Center will have its own personality and weave its own plot lines when the Flyers, dressed in their Halloween orange and black, try to continue a home-winning streak that began in Game 4 of their second-round series against Boston.
(Digression: Keith Jones, the former Flyers forward and current Comcast analyst, once committed the solecism of calling the Flyers' uniform orange and white, and drew dozens of scolding emails. While there indeed might be more square inches of white than black on the sweaters, Jones' description made the jerseys sound a little too much like a Creamsicle for Philly's tastes. He now sticks with orange and black. Now back to our regularly-scheduled take...)
Faced with their fifth elimination game of the spring, the Flyers simply shrug. Been there. Won that. Laviolette has routinely lavished praise on his players for their resiliency. It's possible that no team has ever been so vigorously cuffed around by the Fates and Furies. At this point, a win that sends the series back to Chicago for Game 7 seems like the least these Flyers can do. After essentially doing everything but dodging cars on the Schuylkill Expressway while juggling machetes to get to here, the Flyers figure to be as robust and dynamic as they have been in their other home games against the Blackhawks. Shoddy goaltending ultimately might kill then -- Chicago has scored nine goals in the past three-and-a-half periods -- but adversity will not.
"We know that coming back for Game 6 at home in front of our fans, we're a tough team to beat," left winger Simon Gagné said. "We've been there before. It's not like it's the first time, and I think it's a plus. I'm sure guys are going to be ready to play a big game. We know what to expect in those types of situations. And we're going to be ready for the biggest game of the season."
For those who now accept the Flyers improbable as commonplace, here is an abridged reminder of the travails of a team too ornery to die:
The coach. Laviolette began the season as a studio analyst on TSN in Toronto, a year or so removed from his last coaching job in Carolina. He wondered if he would ever get another chance in the NHL, which is odd considering that he won a Cup with the Hurricanes in 2006 and coached the U.S. Olympic team that same year. When general manager Paul Holmgren fired John Stevens in early December, Laviolette promptly led his new team to two wins in 10 games. (So much for the dead-cat bounce.) The team that is now two wins from a championship was 29th overall in late December.
The goalies. During the course of the season, the Flyers have dressed seven, played five. Michael Leighton, who could be the least likely Cup goalie since 44-year-old Rangers coach Lester Patrick put on pads in 1928, has been with seven organizations. He cost the Flyers less than $180,000 in actual salary, which still might prove to be the discount deal of the decade.
The dressing room. For the first half of the season, there was more harmony in Peter Griffin's cartoon living room. The fault line generally was age, a situation that was exacerbated in the short term when larger-than-life Chris Pronger arrived via trade from Anaheim. This is ancient history now. Once captain Mike Richards regained his equilibrium, the cohesion grew.
The injuries. Sure, hockey is a game of attrition, but in Philadelphia it was a game of devastation. Gagné injured a knee, rushed back and scored the Game 4 winner against Boston during his first shift in overtime. Jeff Carter broke a bone in his left foot in late March, rushed back, and then broke a bone in his right foot on April 20 before incredibly returning late in the Montreal series. The natural center has moved to right wing on Richards' line, but he has yet to have an impact against the Hawks.
The comebacks. Haley's Comet comes back once every 76 years or so. In the NHL, a team comes back from a 3-0 deficit in a series about twice as often -- 1944, 1975 and now 2010, thanks to the Flyers. Historic? Not really. Still, it's something you peek out your window to get a glimpse of. Not only did Philadelphia rally from 3-0 in games against the Bruins, it battled back from a 3-0 score in Game 7 in Boston. Another generation recalls the Perils of Pauline, a popular serial that was shown in movie houses almost a century ago. These are the Perils of Paul Holmgren.
So to recap: Leighton has been pulled twice in five games in the final, Chris Pronger is coming off a minus-five performance, and the top line is not producing.
Yes, the Flyers have the Blackhawks exactly where they want them.
Beyond cocooning Leighton more solidly, the Flyers must do a better job of settling on match-ups. Chicago coach Joel Quenneville redistributed his top line of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Dustin Byfuglien in Game 5 -- Byfuglien had a pair of goals and tamped down his celebrations -- but the Flyers seemed a move behind on the road. Through the first half of that game, Pronger played with regular partner Matt Carle but also took shifts with Kimmo Timonen (which often happens late in periods at even strength), Braydon Coburn and Lukas Krajicek. Pronger might have played himself out of Conn Smythe Trophy consideration in that match unless the Flyers win the next two and he could be a credible choice even if Philadelphia loses a Game 7. But it is as unlikely for him to be undressed for a second straight game as it is for a team that sneaked into the playoffs on the final day of the regular season via the shootout to still be playing in the second week of June.
"We've been in this position before," Flyers winger Scott Hartnell said. "I don't expect any less than us to come out flying, banging, shooting, scoring -- everything we need to be."