PITTSBURGH – Daniel Briere is making May hockey a habit. But what he’d really like is to finally play a series in June.
The Philadelphia Flyers centre is playing in the NHL’s Eastern Conference final for a third straight season. This time, he’s looking for a different ending after being on the losing end with the Buffalo Sabres in 2005-06 and ’06-07. Several days from now, he’s hoping to be shaking the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins with a smile on his face.
“Yeah, it’s been two years in a row now going home empty handed after this series,” Briere said Friday before Game 1 against the Penguins. “So I’m hoping with the experience we have in this dressing room and we’ll be a little bit more better prepared and ready to attack it and move on next time around.”
A year ago at this time, Flyers goalie Martin Biron returned to Buffalo to watch his buddy Briere and his former Sabres teammates lose to the Ottawa Senators in the Eastern Conference final. The thought had already crossed Biron’s mind right then and there. How good would his friend look in a Flyers uniform? Briere was heading into unrestricted free agency July 1 and the Sabres weren’t making any serious offers to keep him.
“Then summer started, and it’s the month of June, and we started working out together in Buffalo before he left to get ready for July 1,” Biron said Friday. “Then we talked a little bit about the situation.
“He was asking questions about Philadelphia and the organization. Luckily I had been there for a couple of months. I knew what the direction of the team was and where they wanted to go. I talked about the good things of Philadelphia and the surroundings.”
Biron also knew Briere was asking around about other teams as well. He kept his fingers crossed that the Flyers would be the team he’d choose. Flyers GM Paul Holmgren had Briere as a July 1 target. But there was serious competition, notably from the Montreal Canadiens. Briere had done his homework and was ready for July 1.
“It’s really tough,” said Biron, who was keeping tabs with Briere. “You get to July 1, and you have an hour or two to make a decision for your next eight years of your life. You want to be prepared for that. And you can do it by asking questions to other guys.”
Biron’s wish came true, Briere signing a US$52-million, eight-year contract with the Flyers on July 1. Briere had gone from a Sabres club that won the President’s Trophy to the last-place team in the NHL. Less than a year later, the Flyers are in the NHL’s final four while the Sabres didn’t even make the playoffs.
In between, however, were some tough times for Briere. Whether it was the burden of a big-money contract or simply adjusting to new surroundings, the 30-year-old Gatineau, Que., native will be the first to admit his 72-point regular season wasn’t up to snuff.
“It was a trying year,” said Briere.
One of the biggest factors was a revolving door of wingers once Simon Gagne was lost for the year.
“I mean, the last four years in Buffalo I only had three different wingers the whole time I was there,” Briere said. “So that was an adjustment this year. … I couldn’t really find chemistry.”
Head coach John Stevens takes some of the blame for that.
“I had the merry go round with the wingers there, trying to find the right fit,” said Stevens.
Then along came Vaclav Prospal from the Tampa Bay Lightning at the trade deadline.
“Vinny Prospal arrived and chemistry started setting in right away,” said Briere. “Our line with Scott Hartnell, going down the stretch I thought our line played really well helping our team move into the playoffs. And our play kept going into the playoffs. So it’s been a lot of fun lately. And you know what, it makes you appreciate it even more when you have to go through tough times.”
Briere led the Flyers through two playoff rounds with 14 points (8-6) in 12 games, clearly back at the top of his game.
“Well, I honestly believe there was a process that he had to go through to become a really valuable player for us,” said Stevens.
“He’s terrific,” added Stevens. “He looks like his old self. I think you’re going to see great play from him for the rest of the time he’s playing for the Flyers.”