MONTREAL – For R.J. Umberger, it would be a dream to face the Pittsburgh Penguins in the NHL Eastern Conference final.
Umberger, who turned 26 on Saturday, is a Pittsburgh native who was inspired by watching Penguins great Mario Lemieux to take up hockey as a child.
Now playing the wing for the Philadelphia Flyers, the brawny Umberger is getting close enough to taste it.
“It’s been fun every time I’ve played against them,” he said Saturday, hours before Game 5 of the Flyers’ playoff series with the Montreal Canadiens. “I got to play against Mario one time before he retired, so that was good.
“I think that to go home and play in a playoff game in Mellon Arena would be pretty amazing. I remember the times I went to playoff games there and how unbelievable it was. To be on the ice for that, with all the friends and family there, would be a special moment.”
The Penguins hold a 3-1 lead on the New York Rangers in the other conference semifinal series and can secure a spot in the final with a win on at home on Sunday.
Umberger certainly has done his part to help the Flyers get there, scoring six times in the opening four games as the Flyers took a 3-1 lead on the Canadiens.
Everything seems to be going in the net these days for the versatile forward, who has played centre and both wings at times this season.
He scored the first goal of the game in the first three games of the series and had two-goal efforts in both Games 2 and 4 – not bad for a player who scored only 13 times in the regular season.
Umberger had 20 goals as an NHL rookie in 2005-06 and 17 the following season. But while goals were down again this season, he had a career-high 37 assists and became a valuable penalty killer and two-way forward.
“This year it’s been harder for me to finish opportunities, and I’ve had a lot of them,” he said. “There were times last year when I had four-game streaks with goals.
“In my first year I scored 20, so there were times when I was hot. But as a pro, this might be one of the hottest times I’ve had.”
No one is expecting Umberger to blossom into a permanent goal-scoring threat, as John LeClair did when he joined the Flyers in the 1990s after being a 19-goal scorer with Montreal. These days, his confidence is sky-high and it seems that nearly everything he shoots goes in.
Coach John Stevens considers Umberger’s goals a bonus.
“If you look at R.J’s first year, he scored 20 goals playing on the third line – I think that was an indication of (a scoring touch),” said Stevens. “R.J.’s a guy who can provide some very good secondary scoring.
“I’m not sure I would consider him a primary scoring option. He creates offence from being in a good defensive posture and a guy who plays like that I would tag it as a secondary scorer. But he can play the power play, he scores 5-on-5, he plays 4-on-4 and he’ll always be a factor on penalty killing.”
The six-foot-two, 210-pound Umberger was drafted 16th overall by the Vancouver in 2001 out of Ohio State University, but didn’t come to terms with the Canucks. His rights were traded to New York for Martin Rucinsky and Martin Grenier late in the 2004 season, but he couldn’t reach a deal with the Rangers, either.
He sat out the entire 2003-04 season before finally signing with the Flyers as a free agent on June 16, 2004. He spent the 2004-05 lockout season with the AHL Philadelphia Phanthoms and joined the Flyers the following season when forward Keith Primeau fell injured.
Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren said he’s not sure why Umberger chose Philadelphia over other teams that were interested in him, but is glad to have him.
“Our coaches are confident in him in any situation,” said Holmgren.
Versatility has become Umberger’s key asset on a team deep in scoring talent, but rarely with a full squad healthy.
“In my game, I’m able to play on different lines and do different roles,” he said. “It’s important to a team. “We’ve had unbelievable injuries the last two years, so to be able to fill spots and play on any line or at centre or winger is key for this team.”
And who knows, maybe his playoff hot streak will make him more of a goal-scorer in future.
“I don’t know, I hope so,” he said. “I improved a lot in my overall game this year, in my awareness defensively and away from the puck. “I got back to being a playmaker like I’ve been a lot of my life. I didn’t have a knack for goals this season for some reason, but to get back to that will definitely add an element to my game and make me a more complete player.”