CHICAGO – Laughs and lighthearted groans came from a small group of Philadelphia Flyers players on Sunday, while they youthfully warmed up for practice by kicking a soccer ball around a circle they formed in a basement corner of the United Center.
The day after their frustrating loss to start the Stanley Cup finals, these whimsical sounds bounced off the cement walls. It was hardly an uptight picture of pressure.
The Flyers pulled their goalie, gave up six goals without facing a single power play, and failed to hold three leads in Game 1 at Chicago. For all they’ve recovered from in this remarkable season, though, they weren’t about to fold up after losing once to the Blackhawks in their noisy arena.
“That’s why it’s a best-of-seven series,” said defenceman Chris Pronger, later adding in prime smart-aleck form: “The world is not ending, and the sun came up today.”
The Flyers, of course, needed all of that to escape their second-round series against Boston after dropping the first three games and falling behind by three goals in the decisive game. They overcame a slew of injuries in the regular season and in the first three series. They even experienced an elimination game just to get in the playoffs, beating the New York Rangers in a shootout to gain a spot on the final day of the regular season.
The Flyers felt their mistakes in defeat on Saturday were preventable, like all those failures to cover up the slot for goalie Michael Leighton. They weren’t fretting about an inability to win when the Blackhawks weren’t at their best.
“I don’t think anybody is hitting the panic button or rushing to do anything rash here,” Pronger said. “We just need to stay focused and play probably a little more relaxed.”
Ah, so there were some nerves, the almost-inevitable anxiety that comes on the sport’s biggest stage after a longer-than-usual layoff between games. Yes, but not in an underdog sort of way.
“Every loss is big in the playoffs. I’m not going to lie about that. But at the same time, coming in everybody was talking about how good the Blackhawks were. … I haven’t heard anybody giving us a chance,” said centre Danny Briere, who with wingers Scott Hartnell and Ville Leino gave the Flyers a yeoman’s effort by keeping Chicago’s talented top line in check and combining for nine points.
According to the NHL, the winner of the first game has sipped from the silver cup in 54 of the 70 finals held since the best-of-seven format started in 1939. Even a stat like that, though, is not enough to sway the Flyers from having faith in themselves.
“It’s never over until it’s completely over,” Briere said, “and we hear that cliche all the time. I feel it’s never been as more true as it is with this team.”
Leighton exemplifies that as well as any player currently wearing the orange and black, having been on the waiver wire more times than he cares to remember and spending the last month of the regular season on the injured list. His sudden opportunity to mind the net came when Brian Boucher got hurt five games into the epic series against Boston.
The big question for coach Peter Laviolette was whether he’d stick with Leighton for Game 2 after he gave up five goals on 20 shots in less than two full periods. After first refusing to reveal his decision, Laviolette later announced through the team that Leighton will start.
The players insisted the problem was theirs, not Leighton’s or Boucher’s. Tightening up the coverage in the slot is the first order, regardless of which guy is in the nets.
“The chances we gave, the shots we gave in dangerous areas, we haven’t done that too many times in the playoffs,” Briere said, adding: “Not too many goalies are going to be successful when you give point-blank chances to score the way we did.”
Leighton proved he can bounce back, surrendering five goals in the Game 3 loss to Montreal that followed his consecutive shutouts to start the conference finals. He responded with another shutout in Game 4 and two goals allowed in the decisive Game 5.
“We’re confident in all of our players. We wouldn’t be here if we weren’t,” Laviolette said. “We’re confident as a group, the way we play the game.”
The coach was coy about his decision at first.
“I can tell you whoever is on that ice in the lineup (Monday), and I say this wholeheartedly, there’s 100 per cent confidence that the people that we’re choosing to go out and represent our organization were very confident in their ability to do the job,” Laviolette said. “And whoever gets the start (Monday) night is really going to shine.”