Philadelphia sports fans have never been considered a shy bunch. They voice their displeasure at will, directing a cascade of boos and other invectives at officials, visiting teams, the home team, and even Santa Claus on one legendary occasion.
So it was not surprising, with their beloved team trailing the Boston Bruins three games to none in last spring’s Eastern Conference semifinals, and the end of the hockey season potentially 60 minutes away, that the Philadelphia Flyers would hear directly from the fan base that’s known more for passion than for anything resembling brotherly love.
“After the National Anthem in Game 4, we were down 3-0 in our own building, and I remember a fan yelling over the glass, ‘You guys owe us at least one win,’ ” recalled Flyers defenseman Matt Carle. “At that point, that’s what you’re battling for. You didn’t want to get embarrassed or get swept.”
Over the course of the next seven days, they were neither embarrassed nor swept by the Bruins. Instead, the Flyers would etch their names in the NHL history books, winning four straight to take the series, and becoming just the third team in league history to rally when down 3-0.
In this age of 24-hour sports highlights beamed into American living rooms, the details have already gotten lost in the shuffle for many hockey fans. Things like the drama of Simon Gagne returning from an injury just in time to net the Flyers’ overtime winner in Game 4, the fact that the Flyers won two playoff games in Boston after not winning a postseason game there for 34 years, and Philadelphia’s amazing comeback in Game 7, when the Bruins
jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the opening period.
Of course, this was a Flyers team that seemed to thrive on drama. They’d endured a turbulent start to the regular season in which Peter Laviolette replaced John Stevens as head coach in December.
Brian Boucher was one of seven goalies who saw time between the pipes, and he won a shootout with the New York Rangers on the final day of the regular season, just to get the Flyers into the playoffs. Seeded seventh, they’d upset the New Jersey Devils in the opening round, but the run seemed doomed once it hit Beantown.
“Last year was a tough year for the core of this group,” said Laviolette, who coached the Hurricanes to the 2006 Stanley Cup.
“You think about all the things that happened through the course of the year, things that you had to overcome, that were not going your way, like negative press and a coaching change and not winning the way you’re expected to win. We made it through all that and we got in [the playoffs]. Going through all that made this group stronger. They believe they can win and know how to overcome adversity.”
So with the Bruins winning the first three games, and the Flyers facing what everyone thought would be a quiet end to their season of tumult, it fell to Laviolette to find out who was ready to fight, and who was prepared to pack it in.
“We had one meeting with the coach when we were down 3-0,” recalled James van Riemsdyk, an alumni of the National Team Development Program who was making his NHL postseason debut. “He put two columns on the board and asked who was going to fight and who was going to roll over. I think we all showed up after that point.”
Still, little came easily on the Flyers road to history. Up 4-3 in the final minute of Game 4, the Flyers saw one of their ex-mates, Mark Recchi, tie the game after the Bruins pulled their goalie.
Gagne’s overtime winner – a tip-in after a nice pass by Carle – sent the series back to Boston. There Boucher started, but did not finish, Game 5, as a mid-game injury forced him out of action. But backup goalie Michael Leighton came in and did not miss a puck, as the goalie tandem combined for a 4-0 shutout.
Leighton got his first playoff start in Game 6, back in Philadelphia, and used the momentum which was now clearly wearing orange and black, to backstop a 2-1 win.
“Going into Game 5 we knew we just wanted to get it back to our building and have a chance to force Game 7,” Carle said. “And once you get to there, you never know what can happen.”
When it’s one game with the season on the line, anything can happen. And on the evening of May 14 in Boston, anything and everything did happen. The Bruins led 3-0 at the 14:10 mark of the first period, and seemed intent on putting the previous week’s troubles behind them. As was typical in the series, the Flyers had other plans.
A much-needed timeout led to a big break when van Riemsdyk scored his first career playoff goal on a misfired shot that caught Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask off balance.
“The timeout was just to try and slow things down, get us back in there,” Laviolette said. “I think the biggest thing in the message was: just score one goal. Just get on the board and get in the game.”
The van Riemsdyk goal gave the Flyers a shot in the arm heading into the middle frame, where Scott Hartnell and Daniel Briere knotted the game at 3-3, and set up the third period heroics of Gagne, whose power-play goal with 7:08 left provided the winning margin.
After easily dispatching the Montreal Canadiens in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Flyers fell to the Blackhawks in six games of a hard-fought Stanley Cup Finals.
As the summer months gave way to the 2010-11 season, the Flyers playoff magic remains fresh in the minds of many players.
“Every once and a while during the summer I would flip on the NHL Network and they had this recap of the whole series,” van Riemsdyk said.
“That was pretty cool to go through it and see the roller coaster ride of the series, where we were down 3-0, we get it to the seventh game and we’re down 3-0 in that game and we end up battling back. It was a pretty special ride.”