True Grit. Flyers Advance to Round 2

The 76ers are on the brink of elimination. The Spurs are scheduled for euthanization. Thankfully, my Flyers rebounded to take out the Buffalo Sabres and advance to round two. It wasn’t easy, though.

You’ve got to hand it to the Flyers. They could have easily checked out and started golfing this weekend. After all, they overachieved last season by coming within two wins of the Stanley Cup, so bowing out in the first round, while disappointing, wouldn’t have sent the natives into – blood thirsty the Eagles just got bounced from the playoffs for the 9th season in a row – mode.

Not these Flyers, though. What we’ve learned in the past year about Peter Laviolette’s group is this: Don’t ever count them out.

Although the second round is hardly the Stanley Cup Finals, the Flyers overcame a lot to even reach round two. First and foremost, they overcame horrible goaltending. I know, I know, Brian Boucher played well throughout most of the series. Still, that first period of Game 5 was one of the least focused periods I’ve seen a goalie play. For whatever reason, Boucher’s head was elsewhere. Allowing horribly soft goals from near impossible angles not only put his team in a 0-3 hole, but it eliminated the crowd, and cost the team its confidence.  Boucher wasn’t alone, though. Sergei Bobrovsky redefined awful in Game 2 and Michael Leighton reminded us why he started only one game in the regular season with his brief cameo in Game 6.

Speaking of Leighton’s Game 6 performance, I blame Laviolette. If he wanted to send a message to Boucher, he should have started Bobrovsky, not Leighton. Bobrovsky got himself banished after one horrible period. Boucher got a slap on the wrist. Benching Boucher and then starting Leighton over Bobrovsky nearly cost Philadelphia the series. And that would have been on Laviolette.

Truth is, Laviolette’s awful personnel move in Game 6 should have cost Philadelphia the series. Thankfully, the Flyers have an uncanny knack for picking themselves up off the mat and therefore, bailed out their coach. In two of their four victories, Philadelphia came from behind to win, and that doesn’t include their comeback from three goals down in Game 5, which undoubtedly affected the Sabres two days later.

In Game 6, despite a two goal lead, Buffalo looked rattled once Philadelphia increased its pressure. See, the Flyers greatest asset is their intensity. Watch them play for an entire series without glancing at the score and you’d think they were in overtime, not trailing 3-0, 3-1, or 3-2. That resilience from the Flyers kept Buffalo on edge. Even with a multiple goal lead, the Sabres played tight, as if they knew the lead wouldn’t hold. While Philadelphia’s comeback in Game 5 came up short, it affected Buffalo’s confidence and ultimately aided the Flyers’ rally in Game 6.

In addition to fighting their way back into games, the Flyers twice had to fight to regain home ice, and twice succeeded. Dropping game one was a surprise to no one. Philadelphia entered the playoffs bloodied and on the ropes. Squeaking out Game 2 and stealing Game 3 in Buffalo gave the Flyers back home ice and helped them find their stride again. Although Boucher’s swinging door policy in Game 5 gave home ice back to Buffalo, his teammates again responded to rip it, and the series itself, away from the Sabres in what ultimately was the final blow to Lindy Ruff’s fragile team. Wrestling away home ice on two separate occasions isn’t a matter of talent or depth. It’s a measure of grit, heart, and to reference Rookie of the Year, “Want-to.” (Update: It’s been brought to my attention that it’s actually “have-to.” Whoops. “Have-to” doesn’t work for me here, so let’s just pretend. Ok? Thanks.)

Heart overcomes injuries to two of the team’s top five players. Teams with grit don’t look around for someone to make a play. Each player puts that responsibility on himself. “Want-to” isn’t discouraged by multiple goal deficits. It thrives on the challenge to rally. These Flyers don’t back down. They refuse to give up. And if you count them out, they’ll take a lead, a game, and even a series right out from under your nose.

Settle down, Vancouver. Settle down.

I doubt most of you on the east coast were still up at 1:15 AM to catch the conclusion of the Blackhawks/Canucks series, so here’s a 15 second recap: The Canucks, once up 3-0 in the series, dropped the next three to Chicago to force a Game 7. Ok, they pretty much got annihilated in Games 4 and 5, but whatever. In Game 7, the Canucks scored less than three minutes in and held that 1-0 lead until just under two minutes remained in the game. At the 1:56 mark of the 3rd period, Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews scored a shorthanded goal to knot the score at one. You could practically hear the 20,000 Vancouver fans in attendance dry-heaving in their seats.

In overtime, the Canucks killed off an early penalty before eventually scoring the series clinching goal on an awful turnover in the Chicago zone. Unfortunately, as is often the case, the overtime was too short to match the intensity of regulation. (I think the NHL needs a silent rule to discourage goals in the first 10 minutes of playoff overtimes. It’s a beautiful thing when 60 minutes of intense playoff hockey results in overtime. However, during the overtime intermission, someone apparently opens the pressure valve as the intensity to start overtime is rarely at the level it was to close the final period. It takes time to ratchet that intensity back up. Is there anything we can do to ensure the goals come in the latter part of overtimes? Please? )

Regardless, Chicago’s valiant and inspiring run to pull off the second 0-3 series comeback in as many years fell just short. On the other hand, without goalie Corey Crawford in net, Chicago may have lost Game 7 by double digits. The 26-year-old Crawford made one unbelievable save after another, keeping Chicago in the game as long as possible until Alex Burrows fired a rocket over Crawford’s right shoulder to send the Blackhawks home for the summer.

I was a little bummed. You see, throughout the series my rooting interest changed about eight times. I wanted Vancouver because I was still bitter about losing to Chicago in the Stanley Cup. Then I wanted Chicago to make it interesting after going down 0-3. Then I wanted Vancouver again because I felt bad for Vancouver goalie Roberto Luongo. (By the way, benching Luongo in Game 6 was the single dumbest call I’ve seen all season. Laviolette starting Leighton in Game 6 was a close second. Must be a Game 6 coaching breakdown thing. I digress.) Halfway through Game 7, I switched back to Chicago because I admired their effort and determination despite being overmatched by Vancouver’s talent. Once Chicago tied the game, I again wanted Vancouver because I feared the Blackhawks comeback could diminish the Flyers’ epic comeback against Boston last year. Then, finally, after Vancouver won, I wished Chicago had won.

And here, albeit five paragraphs later, is where I finally get to my point: I’ve never seen a one seed celebrate so euphorically after knocking off an eight seed. I understand there’s a lot of history there (Chicago eliminated Vancouver the last two seasons), but still. You could at least act like you thought you were going to win. Compare the Flyers’ celebration with Vancouver’s. Philadelphia hugged, thanked their goalie and moved to shake hands. The Canucks were jumping on each other and dropping equipment like they’d just won the Cup. The Vancouver coaches were even worse, hugging and jumping around the bench like 13-year-olds meeting Justin Bieber. I’m not trying to rain on the Canucks’ parade. I like them. I want those awesome blue jerseys in the playoffs. All I’m saying is Vancouver’s reaction to getting out of the first round doesn’t bode well for their Stanley Cup hopes. Let’s just leave it at that.

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