When rooting for a team there comes a point when you realize that the opponent has a lead that is insurmountable, as much as you try to erase it from your thought process, it lingers around like a thirsty mosquito that just can’t get enough to drink. Coming into game five I like most Flyers fans tried to look at the positives: Ilya Bryzgalov had pretty much single handily kept games 2-4 from being total blowouts, a Peter Laviolette team isn’t just going to fold up like a bad tent, and most importantly this team plays its best hockey when their backs are against the wall.
Yet throughout this series there was something that was missing. Philadelphia skated without intensity and purpose, which just stunned me because those two emotions were the catalyst behind upending the media favorite Penguins. Somewhere in this series the Flyers lost their identity and began to look like a team that was just running on fumes. You can usually see those types of things coming with teams, hell last year some of the players admitted that they were playing bored hockey because they had been in first for so long, there was nothing left to play for in the regular season. They ended up getting their asses handed to them by a Boston team that wanted it more and not just by a small margin. I knew that series was over after the Bruins were able to come back and tie the game in the first period after James van Reimsdyk scored two goals in the first two minutes. Philly was outplayed to a point that a four game sweep actually seemed acceptable to me, it was clear just how much of a difference there was between the two teams.
I don’t know if I can express in detail how I feel about what just took place. It’s such a confusion of emotions because as a fan you never expect your team to be dominated by a team that doesn’t seem like a threat. As a series wears on however, you begin to see the signs of a team that is going to be defeated and yet you can’t accept what you’re seeing. While watching game four with a couple friends we talked about how it seemed like there were 20 Devils players on the ice. The Flyers constantly turned the puck over, looked like they were stuck in first gear, and were incredibly sloppy passing the puck. It was like watching a totally different fucking team, I don’t get it and I don’t know if I ever will.
At some point during the second period of game four I realized that the Devils had figured the Flyers out, it was at that moment that I should have just turned off any expectations that I had because there was no way an Eastern Conference Finals birth was going to be in the cards for my beloved team. I just couldn’t do it though because the miracle that happened in 2010 is going to forever damn my thoughts about the end game for this team. It’s impossible to count them out until the realization occurs that ’10 was a once in a lifetime experience and anything like it will probably never happen again.
There’s no way that the Flyers were going to recreate any type of that magic without the combination of their leader and captain. This was the point where the Flyers desperately needed Chris Pronger to be the physical leader of the defense (yeah, yeah I know he’s been out the entire season, but he’s still the captain of the team for god’s sake).
The leader of this team, Claude Giroux, set the tone in the first round with his scoring ability and physicality (that Pens series seems so long ago, but I can still watch G’s hit on Crosby on loop for the next month), but he was bottled up by a swarming Jersey defense. So much so that his frustrations boiled over to a point that he took a cheap head shot on Dainius Zubrus. There was no way that Brendan Shanahammer was going to let that one slide by. That left the Flyers without their best player in what was the most important game of the season. Insert Zac Rinaldo into the lineup and I have to say he gave the Flyers quite a lift early on in game five. He punished Anton Volchenkov for crushing Brayden Schenn into the boards. That hit fired up the crowd and the Flyers used that energy to take an early 1-0 lead. Things began to look like the first round and I gained a touch more optimism, but I should have known that it was only a temporary feeling. After all the Flyers coming into the game were 1-5 in this year’s playoffs when scoring first (seriously how can this stat be explained, someone get Tim Panacchio on it!)
I have to give credit to Devils’ head coach Peter DeBour and his staff for exposing the Flyers in this series. They drew up a perfect game plan and the players executed it to a T. Coming in they were a true underdog, but played far from one. Ilya Kovalchuk finally played like the superstar that the Devils thought they were getting years ago, but it’s impossible to single out just one player on this New Jersey team and say that’s the reason they won. This group won it with a true team effort.
This series had moments where the two teams looked equal on the ice, but there was not one long stretch in any of the games where the Flyers outplayed their cross state rivals. When the Flyers played well the two teams were equal, but when their level of play dropped the Devils were right there to firmly take control. There was only one point where New Jersey’s level of play dropped, overtime of game one. That was the most vulnerable they looked as a team during the entire series.
Perhaps the most frustrating part was watching the play of the legend Martian Brodeur. When I was a young kid he was my favorite player. I marveled at how he could effortlessly make saves that just didn’t seem possible. He was a big reason why I started watching the game of hockey and grew to love it, but watching him play in this series was so god damn frustrating that I’m pounding the keys as I type this. He played about B- hockey in this series. There were multiple times throughout the five games where he would go to play the puck and every Devils fan that sat at the bar would yell out stay in net because of how close the puck would come to settling down on a Flyers stick with a wide open net staring at them. When the Flyers did manage to sustain a tiny bit of pressure he made saves that looked miraculous only because he was sprawling around on the ice for no apparent reason. That fish like activity allowed the Flyers to hang around in game three when they had no business being there (Brayden Schenn’s deflection that ALMOST ended that game in overtime will be the one of two memories that will haunt me for at least the next 20 years when thinking about this series). I guess when I was a little kid I always thought Brodeur was sprawling because he didn’t have a choice, now I know that he just wanted to audition for NBC’s new reality show, Dancing on Ice, where NHL players, celebrities, and Chris Jericho compete to see who has the best figure skating routine (my money is on Tammy Duncan the figure skater in the first Mighty Ducks movie, he seems like the perfect F list actor for another NBC failure).
Brodeur was able to be mediocre because of how well his team played in front of him (the .921 save percentage in the series is a fine number, but he faced 29 less shots than Bryzgalov), meanwhile Ilya “Mr. Universe” Bryzgalov had to stand on his head during longgggg stretches of time when the Flyers weren’t able to clear the puck due to sloppy joe passing. The man who has admitted to being afraid of bears played like one in the second period of game two, but one man can’t hold his team afloat when they’re playing so dismal in front of him (unless your name is Jonathan Quick). That’s why it’s so sad that his first season in the city of brotherly love will be remembered for the you have got to be fucking kidding me play of the puck that deflected off David Clarkson’s leg and through Bryz’s five hole. It was by far the worst play he’s made all season and it happened at a time when the magnifying glass of the media is hovering down (this is the other memory that will haunt me for 20 years when thinking about this series).
The most frustrating part of sitting here and staring blankly at my computer screen as I think about what just happened is that I won’t get to see a Flyers-Kings finals. That series would have been ripe with storylines that you could only dream of. It would have been fantastic for the sport of hockey and a great way to cap off what has been the best playoff tournament in recent memory. Now that the Flyers are gone I can stop thinking about how eerie and confusing it would have been to see Mike Richards and Jeff Carter lifting Lord Stanley in the Wells Fargo Center while wearing a Los Angeles Kings sweater, but now I’ll have to settle for rooting for the team that I call the Flyers West because I’ll be damned if I tune into a minute of an Eastern Conference Finals that consists of the Rangers and Devils (I’m saying that now, but I just can’t turn away from the playoffs like that because it will be a great series).
Maybe we should have known the Flyers were doomed when Peter Laviolette deemed Claude Giroux the “best player in the world”. Maybe we should have known the Flyers were doomed when the giveaway/takeaway numbers were 20/5 in game four (20/5!). Maybe we should have known the Flyers were doomed when every fan looked past the Devils. Maybe one day when I’m still on the Earth this team will finally kiss Lord Stanley.
Follow me on twitter @scottdargis.