Brian Boucher waited 10 long years for that elusive playoff victory over the New Jersey Devils.
Although Boucher and the Philadelphia Flyers can’t erase the crushing loss to New Jersey in the 2000 Eastern Conference finals, a series they led 3-1 – they can at least gain some satisfaction that they have wrested home-ice advantage away from their neighbours to the north.
Behind Boucher’s 23 saves Wednesday night, the Flyers earned a 2-1 victory over the Devils in the opener of the first-round playoff series. For Boucher, it’s his first post-season win since Game 4 of that fateful series against New Jersey 10 years ago.
“Our goaltender gave us an opportunity to win that game,” Flyers coach Peter Laviolette said.
Forget all that talk about shaky goaltending, Boucher is suddenly looking like that rookie from a decade earlier who pushed the Devils to the brink of elimination.
Who could have expected that?
“I’m not sure about the critics, but in the first period we didn’t play our best hockey,” said captain Mike Richards, who scored the winning goal. “He kept us he the hockey game and made the big saves. At the end of the game he made some big saves, too. It’s nice to see that he’s got his confidence back.”
And the 33-year-old netminder is living in the moment.
“Ten years is 10 years ago,” he said. “It’s a new series. I’m just thankful to have another chance to play here in the playoffs.”
Boucher started this season as a journeyman, having made his way back to Philadelphia after leaving following the 2001-02 season. He made stops in Phoenix, Calgary, Chicago, Columbus, and San Jose, before being signed by the Flyers last July to back up Ray Emery.
As long as his path back to Philadelphia was, his rise to the top spot this season was nearly as unlikely.
Making matters worse, Boucher has had to listen to hockey observers criticize general manager Paul Holmgren for failing to make a deal for a proven goalie at the trade deadline despite injuries to Ray Emery and Michael Leighton.
Back in 2000, Boucher became the first rookie goalie in 50 years to finish with a goals-against average under 2.00. But before Wednesday he hadn’t been in an NHL playoff game since coming on in relief for San Jose in 2008 – a two-minute stint.
“Life is about opportunity. He has been patiently – and sometimes not patiently – waiting for his,” Laviolette said. “You don’t ever sign up in the National Hockey League really to be a backup goaltender.”
Philadelphia seemingly had a legitimate chance to compete for the Stanley Cup, but critics said that would never materialize because of the deficiency in net. How would the Flyers be able to compete when teams such as New Jersey and Pittsburgh in their division had goalies with Stanley Cup rings on their resume?
Although it’s only one game, Boucher and the Flyers already have the upper hand on New Jersey and Martin Brodeur – the all-time wins leader in the sport and a three-time Cup champion. The Flyers will have a chance at a 2-0 series lead Friday.
“He made some key saves at times,” Brodeur said. “He got a little lucky at times. That’s part of it in the playoffs. You can’t dwell on the luck of the goalie. You have to fight for your goals. I’m sure if we throw enough pucks at him, they’ll start going in.”
If not for Boucher, the Flyers might not even have made the playoffs. Boucher allowed only one regulation goal to the New York Rangers on Sunday in a win-or-go-home regular-season finale that finished in a shootout. Boucher bested Henrik Lundqvist, a three-time Vezina Trophy finalist, 2-1 in the decisive tiebreaker that sent the Rangers home.
“He played great down the stretch for us,” forward Ian Laperriere said. “You know what I like about this guy is just that nobody believed in him. We believe in him and he believes in himself. He wants to prove the hockey world wrong and we’ll help him doing that.”
Boucher flopped and fell Wednesday in the opener against the Devils as he flailed to keep pucks from getting past him – quite the antithesis of Brodeur, who rarely finds himself scrambling to get back into position.
Boucher gloved a hard drive off the stick of Ilya Kovalchuk in the first period among his nine saves and then stood tall in the second to deny Kovalchuk again after the Devils’ shifty forward weaved his way through the Philadelphia defence.
And when Boucher got into trouble in the third period, he was bailed out when teammate Braydon Coburn knocked the net off its moorings to get a whistle.
No worries – Boucher and the Flyers killed off the ensuing delay-of-game penalty.
His only blemish came when Travis Zajac scored with 2:43 left to bring the Devils within 2-1. New Jersey mounted pressure in the closing seconds with Brodeur on the bench for an extra skater.
Boucher stayed solid in the crease and finally got that win that escaped him long ago.