I really can't remember the last time the whole town was this excited about a single playoff game. The diehards are ready to explode, the casual fans have joined the party, and people who don't care ... well, they're mostly wondering why I keep wearing orange to work. But the build-up to this game over the past week, the anticipation of a series finale that could put the Flyers in the history books as just the third team to ever come back from a 3-0 deficit...! You've heard all this before. It's all anyone's talking about today.
Confidence is rarely this high for a team trying to pull off the type of win that is so unlikely that it only happens every 30+ years, but the Flyers' rattling off three straight wins despite a slew of injuries has us all pretty fired up. It also seems to have the Bruins fans worried about being on the wrong end of the trivia question. Can they pull it off? Of course they can, for a variety of reasons. But it's by no means a foregone conclusion that they're headed to the Conference Finals this weekend.
Breaking down the first six games of the series, we shouldn't be too surprised that the Flyers were still alive after the first three games, which were of course all losses (unless we're focusing on the mounting-injury factor). They lost very evenly played games, earning them that "Other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln" sentiment of being on the losing end of just about the closest 3-0 series imaginable. Getting Simon Gagne back and letting the lines gel back together might have been just enough to tip the scales. But factor in those injuries to key forwards and, later, the goalie that dominated the Devils in the first round, and yeah, we're pretty shocked this series has a game 7.
However, if you listen to the coach and the players, they don't seem to be surprised at all. Down three games, two, one, and even up, they've continued to prepare and practice for every one like they expected to win; even now, they're saying they need to play better than they have.
Momentum or Microcosm?
One of the big questions tonight is whether the Flyers will benefit from the momentum of having won three straight, or if we're really looking at a one-game series now. The team is saying it's the latter, and that's probably the right way to prepare. Don't expect a repeat of game 5, which ended with an embittered crowed littering the ice and booing their team into the locker room, but know that it's definitely possible.
That was the fluke game in this series though. In game 6, the Bruins played much better, owning the better play for a good 25-30 minutes, including most of the second period when they were already down a goal. That fact could be the undoing of the currently popular line of thinking that the Bruins will shrink if the Flyers score first. I agree it'd be pretty awesome, and I think being scored on first in that particular building would be a lot worse than doing so on the road. But based on what we saw in game 6, this won't be a one-period game.
To win like that again, they'll need to be able to weather the storm a second time, which is a lot harder than doing it once. However, if the Flyers find themselves down a goal, we've at least seen that they can put enough pressure on the very good defense of the Bruins to keep them in it barring a catastrophic scoring outbreak by Boston.
Scoring just once in the past two games, they're either due or they're done.
One of the matchups the Flyers are winning in this series is the Zdeno Chara-Mike Richards duel. Boston's giant has spent a lot of energy trying to control Richie, which has not only benefitted the Flyers' other lines by seeing them consistently facing Boston's lesser pairings—it also just hasn't worked. Richards has 8 points through 6 games, including 3 goals. Chara's still on the plus side on even strength, but as the series has worn on, he's increasingly looked like a man skating with a small tree in his hands (which isn't far from the truth).
Meanwhile, after successfully muting the scoring stars of the Devils by putting their defensive efforts into the proverbial "taking away their time and space," the Flyers opened the second round against a team that doesn't have easily recognizable snipers like Ilya Kovalchuk. As such, it wasn't as easy to employ the same system and account for the likes of the dagger-wielders like Mark Recchi and Miroslav Satan in the first three games. But they've been able to do it since, tying up sticks and pressuring the puck carrier to force offside calls or turnovers, or otherwise keeping the play in their zone on the perimeter, without much garbage in front.
Seeing a few Bruins join the injured Flyers in the press box didn't hurt either.
The Leight Show
Hate to put the whole series and beyond on one guy's shoulders, but the fact is it often comes down to which goalie plays better and gets luckier. In just over a game and a half of playoff backstopping, Michael Leighton has been outstanding, and has only needed to be a little lucky. Keep that up, and the Flyers should be able to beat Rask a few times tonight and move on.
I'm watching the game at home with some friends and a fridge full of beer. In the event of a win, you'll probably see a post consisting of a few words and maybe a picture. If not, well... Have a great weekend doing something other than watching hockey.
Predictions? At the start of the series, I called it for the Flyers in 7. I think I'll stick with that.
Game 7 Flyers art by reader Mike Brooks.