PHILADELPHIA – In the end, the Flyers were more stunned than saddened.
They expected a Game 7.
Now, it’s over.
In a season in which they seemingly mastered the art of the comeback, the Philadelphia Flyers are dealing with falling one rally short.
The Chicago Blackhawks put a sudden end to the Flyers’ unlikely playoff run Wednesday in overtime of Game 6 for their first Stanley Cup title since 1961.
Make it 35 years and counting for the Flyers in their pursuit of a third championship.
The Flyers’ stirring post-season run started weeks ago, on the last day of the regular season, when a shootout win secured the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference. They became the third team in NHL history to win a series after losing the first three games, eliminating Boston in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Philadelphia rallied to even the Stanley Cup finals at 2-2 after losing the first two games at Chicago.
The Blackhawks ended the Flyers’ run with a 4-3 win in Game 6.
“We just believed it was the way it was supposed to go,” Flyers forward Danny Briere said. “We just thought we were meant to go back to Chicago.”
The silver trophy did make the trip to Chicago—where it will be the star of the Blackhawks’ championship parade on Friday. The Flyers are left to ponder this summer how they let hockey’s ultimate prize slip away for another year.
Scott Hartnell scored Philadelphia’s final goal of the season late in the third period to tie Game 6 at 3-3. It was the latest clutch post-season goal in two months of can-you-top-this scoring for the Flyers. The goal set off a wild celebration at the Wachovia Center, and fans of the orange and black began to look forward to their team delivering its 10th home win of the playoffs.
Then came chaos in OT.
Chicago’s Patrick Kane scored on an offbeat angle against goaltender Michael Leighton to win the game. Kane was the only player who saw the puck lodged under the net pad, so he zipped away in triumph.
Nobody else on the ice had any idea what was going on.
The Blackhawks figured if Kane had shed his stick and gloves and was storming the other way toward the open arms of goaltender Antti Niemi, the winning goal had to count. The Blackhawks bolted over the boards and mobbed Kane in the corner.
After a brief review, there was no dispute that the Blackhawks were the NHL champs.
The Flyers sat on the bench dazed at how it all went down.
Briere was waiting for a whistle to stop play.
“I was like, no, that can’t be it,” he said. “You can’t win the Stanley Cup on not even being sure if you won it or not. I can’t believe they’d win a Stanley Cup this way. It doesn’t change how much it hurts.”
The area around Briere’s right eye was stitched and badly bruised after he took a vicious stick to the face in Game 5. Lucky for him, he didn’t miss any action because of the injury.
The Flyers made their run while playing through stretches without Jeff Carter, Simon Gagne, Ian Laperriere and Brian Boucher.
Boucher’s injury opened the door for Leighton. In the Eastern Conference final, he became the first Flyers goalie with three shutouts in a post-season series.
Injuries to Gagne and Carter paved the way for Ville Leino’s emergence.
Leino’s 21 points tied the NHL record for points by a rookie in one post-season set by Dino Ciccarelli with Minnesota in 1981.
Briere was a stalwart for the Flyers throughout the playoffs. He finished as the leading scorer in the post-season with 30 points (12 goals, 18 assists). He also set the Flyers’ franchise record for post-season scoring, eclipsing Brian Propp’s 12 goals and 28 points in 1987.
Briere had 12 points (three goals, nine assists) in the series, the most in the finals since Mario Lemieux had 12 in 1991, and one point shy of Wayne Gretzky’s NHL record set in 1988.
“I hope there’s many years to come where we get this far or even farther,” Briere said.
The Flyers were a pre-season favourite to play deep into the playoffs. No one could have expected the route.
They lost opening night starter Ray Emery to a season-ending injury and coach John Stevens was fired in December. At one point, the Flyers were 14th in the 15-team Eastern Conference.
Coach Peter Laviolette needed time to make his system work, and the team still needed a shootout to make the playoffs.
General manager Paul Holmgren has to decide if the April-June Flyers were the real deal, or if they’re closer to the team that finished 41-35-6 for 88 points and underachieved in the regular season.
He pulled off a huge trade last off-season for defenceman Chris Pronger, and that was a major success. Holmgren will need a goalie if he decides Leighton and Boucher are merely backups who simply got hot at the right time.
“They never quit. They are a resilient group,” Laviolette said. “I think we grew through adversity.”