The nucleus of a sports team gets only so many chances to define itself. Injuries intervene. Pucks bounce oddly. A better opponent gets in the way. Age happens. And then, almost always sooner than anyone ever predicts, it is time to trade away a piece or two in an attempt to create a better karma.
We have all seen it happen -- and that is not to say that it would have happened if the Flyers had lost Game 7 against the Buffalo Sabres. In fact, it would not have happened. But the feeling, from the coach to the general manager, from the first forward to the third goaltender, would have been of emptiness, of waste.
One of a precious handful of opportunities would have been thrown away, trashed.
Instead, after this Game 7, the dream lives -- in wildly spectacular fashion.
A Flyers team that had dominated the Sabres everywhere but in goal, dominated them for the better part of 2 weeks, won the final game and won the series with a resounding 5-2 victory at Wells Fargo Center. And history will record the ultimate irony: that in a series in which the Flyers used three different starting goaltenders and saw all of them yanked from games at different times, the Flyers completed their task by chasing Buffalo goaltender Ryan Miller from the net in the third period.
As for the next round, no one has a clue. With Montreal’s 2-1 win over Boston, that series will see a seventh game, as will the Tampa Bay-Pittsburgh series. The Flyers could end up playing Boston (if the Bruins win) or the winner of Tampa Bay-Pittsburgh (if Boston loses).
But that is for later. In the here and now, a Flyers team that had to deal with a late-season malaise, the loss of defenseman Chris Pronger (for more than 6 weeks, until Game 6 of this series) and some truly bizarre goaltending against the Sabres, managed to overcome it all, surviving two elimination games in the process.
It began as you would have expected -- with a rush of emotion from the crowd and with a Flyers team appropriately fueled. The Sabres played a more passive style than they have all series and the Flyers just came at them in a seemingly never-ending series of waves.
But they couldn’t score.
The shots mounted for the Flyers...10-2...11-2...12-2...but they couldn’t solve Miller. They didn’t get a lot of rebound work in front but they did have a bunch of good scoring chances -- the best, in the very early going, when Claude Giroux found himself alone in Miller’s lap, went forehand-backhand-forehand, and then appeared to hit the post.
It kept going...13-2...14-2...15-2...but Miller still wouldn’t crack. It would have been a colossal letdown if the Flyers had somehow left the period with a deficit. It would have been bad enough if the period had ended with a 0-0 tie.
Then, in the final minute, Flyers defenseman Braydon Coburn wristed a nothing kind of shot at the net. Along the way, it might have tipped off of the glove of the Sabres’ Mike Grier. It was close, very tough to tell. But you kind of think it might have hit something because it somehow found its way through Miller’s pads and into the net.
It was Miller’s softest goal of the series, and it was 1-0 Flyers at the intermission. And just for the hell of it, old pal Danny Briere skated through the crease after the puck had crossed the goal line and gave Miller, his former teammate, a little tap on the back of the head.
The Flyers blew open the game in the second period with two power play goals -- and, yes, Chris Pronger’s presence in the lineup has made all the difference for what had been a moribund power play unit. Briere got the first one, corralling a shot-pass from Mike Richards and shooting past Miller. Then it was a Giroux blast through a James Van Riemsdyk screen in front. The scorers gave the goal to Giroux but Van Riemsdyk said in a between-periods interview with Steve Coates that he tipped it past Miller. Eventually, the goal was officially credited to Van Riemsdyk.
That made it 3-0 after the second. Ville Leino got the fourth goal on a blast from a fairly severe angle, and that was it for Miller. As he skated off, to be replaced by Jhonas Enroth, the building erupted.
As punctuation goes, it was reasonably emphatic.