VOORHEES, N.J. – R.J. Umberger was a Pittsburgh Penguin at heart.
He rooted for his hometown Penguins, was thrilled when he nabbed an errant puck off Paul Coffey’s stick, and sat heartbroken in the stands when Keith Primeau and the Flyers used five overtime periods to beat Pittsburgh in the 2000 playoffs.
“It was the Penguins, it was Mario Lemieux, it was everything I thought about during the day or night,” Umberger said.
The only time the Penguins enter Umberger’s mind at night this time of year is when he thinks about how great it would feel for his Philadelphia Flyers to beat them in the Eastern Conference final. The boyhood dream of leading the Penguins to the Stanley Cup has been replaced by the professional goal of taking the in-state rival Flyers to their first title since 1975.
“It was such a heated rivalry between the two teams. You’re born to grow up that way,” Umberger said Monday. “Once I signed here, I joined a family here.”
If the Flyers win that coveted Cup, Umberger’s sensational postseason will be a crucial reason. The third-year forward nearly scored a season’s worth of goals in Philadelphia’s 4-1 series win against Montreal. He scored eight against the Canadiens after scoring only 13 goals with 50 points in 74 games this season.
“I’m sure it’s a big thrill for him that we’re matched up with Pittsburgh,” coach John Stevens said. “He’s happy he can help the team and he’s happy he’s having that kind of production this time of the year.”
Umberger became hooked on the Penguins as a kid raised in Plum Borough, Pa., a small suburb about 20 kilometres east of Pittsburgh. He couldn’t recall his first game, but smiled at a memory from when he was about seven years old and he caught a puck that blasted off Coffey’s stick and smacked Umberger’s knee in the stands.
“My dad got that puck for me,” Umberger said. “I remember blowing it off like my knee didn’t hurt.
“But I was so thrilled to have that puck.”
Years later, his dad took him to see the Penguins play against the Flyers in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. They stayed for all 92 minutes one second of the five-overtime game that ended with Primeau’s goal exactly seven hours after the opening faceoff.
“It just kept going on and on and you’re on the edge of the seat the whole time,” he said. “For me at that moment, it was kind of a disappointment.”
His dad worked the next day while Umberger skipped school.
And when the Penguins threatened to leave Pittsburgh if they couldn’t secure a new rink to replace Mellon Arena, Umberger couldn’t stand the idea of the Penguins playing in Kansas City or elsewhere. Umberger, the only first-round pick from Pittsburgh in NHL history, wanted his favourite team to stay put.
“I didn’t ever want to see hockey leave there. That meant a lot to me as a person,” he said. “I wouldn’t be where I’m at without the Penguins there.
“It’s the reason why I started playing hockey. To take that away from any kids that are just growing up there right now would have been a big disappointment there and hard to see.”
The Penguins are staying put, with a new arena on the way.
Umberger suffered a personal disappointment when he sprained his left knee March 16, oddly enough at Pittsburgh. He missed six games and the Flyers’ playoff push, one reason Stevens demoted him to the fourth line at the start of the postseason. When other Flyers were hurt, Umberger made the most of his new opportunities.
He scored two goals in Philadelphia’s 6-4 win over Montreal on Saturday night and Umberger’s eight goals set a Flyers record for a five-game series. It nearly matched Tim Kerr’s record 10 goals in a seven-game series against Pittsburgh in 1989.
“I just felt like I had something to prove again,” he said. “The whole year was all for this moment.”
The stellar series has Philly buzzing about his timely goals instead of his lone previous playoff, uh, highlight: Umberger was levelled by Buffalo defenceman Brian Campbell in a 2006 first-round series.
Umberger never appeared to lose consciousness, but his eyes were glassy as he lay on the ice for several minutes before being helped off. He suffered a devastating concussion and the effects lingered into next season. He played 81 games, but had only 28 points.
“It definitely took a lot to put that past me and move on,” Umberger said. “You don’t think it’s going to drag on that long, but it did.”
Umberger put the injury behind him, much like where he’ll keep the memories this week from a childhood spent cheering the Penguins.