BUFFALO -- We have been talking about the Flyers and their goaltenders for a quarter-century now -- but maybe never more than now.
Six games. Three different starting goalies. Sergei Bobrovsky begat Brian Boucher, who begat Michael Leighton -- and none of them could avoid a meltdown.
It has been the story of the series. But, somehow, the Flyers are still alive. Trailing by 2-0 and 3-1, they came all the way back to tie the game at 3-3 in the second period on Danny Briere’s second goal of the game and fifth of the series. Then they tied it at 4-4 in the third period on a goal by Scott Hartnell. And then, on their 48th shot on goal, at 4:43 of overtime, Ville Leino scored the goal that sends the series, amazingly, back to Philadelphia for a Game 7 on Tuesday night.
The day began in mystery. Who would start Game 6? It was reminiscent of a time long ago. In the late 1970s, Roger Nielson was coaching the Toronto Maple Leafs. One day, he was fired by their crazy owner, Harold Ballard. But the reaction from the players and the media and the fans was so strong that Ballard changed his mind -- except that he kept that little bit of news between him and Roger.
In the hours leading up to game time, Ballard tried to convince Nielson to walk out as the mystery coach, with a bag over his head that he would then rip off once he got behind the bench. Nielson refused.
It was with the same kind of mystery that Flyers coach Peter Laviolette treated his Game 6 goaltender -- after Boucher was chased from Game 5. There was no paper bag over the head this time, either -- it was Leighton.
In the end, it didn’t matter.
Leighton was brutal in the first period, just as Bobrovsky had been brutal in the first period of Game 2 and Boucher had been brutal in the first period of Game 5. He allowed three goals on eight shots.
The first, a wrist shot from the face-off dot by Rob Niedermayer, beat Leighton over his glove; clean enough. But the next two were messy, messy affairs -- a bouncing puck courtesy of Thomas Vanek on which Leighton kind of fanned in traffic, and then another goal that Vanek just sort of shoved through Leighton’s legs from in close.
Both of the Vanek goals were on the power play, but that didn’t really matter. The Sabres had three and the Flyers had only one, despite having 17 shots in the first period and about 10 legitimate scoring chances. The goal came as most of theirs come these days, from Danny Briere on a rebound.
In the meantime, there was another mystery for Game 6 -- whether or not defenseman Chris Pronger would play after being MIA for more than a month while recovering from a broken hand. As it turned out, Pronger did play -- but only on the power play. And it was while he was parked in front of the net, fencing with big Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers, that Pronger received a slashing penalty. It was during that 4-on-3 advantage that Vanek scored the Sabres’ third goal.
Anyway, Boucher started the second period in goal and the Flyers stormed back. Just 49 seconds into the period, James Van Riemsdyk fired one past Ryan Miller off of a faceoff to make it 3-2. Then, with the Sabres’ Jordan Leopold off for holding, it was Briere again, a slap shot from the top of the left circle that beat Miller cleanly while Van Riemsdyk was doing his best to be a distraction in front.
So it was 3-3. Just as in Game 5 of the series, the Flyers had surmounted the obstacle that their starting goaltender had built. But then it began to slip away. At 13:06, Kris Versteeg took an unnecessary slashing penatly. At 13:57, Mike Richards took a bad boarding penalty. The Sabres had a 5-on-3 advantage for 1:10 -- and the Flyers killed it off.
It should have energized them -- but just a few seconds later, the Sabres’ Nathan Gerbe came in on a rush and snapped off a shot that was slightly deflected by the stick of Flyers defenseman Sean O’Donnell. Boucher waved at the puck. It was 4-3, Buffalo.
That is how the third period began. Boucher made a couple of big saves early in the period, on Tyler Ennis and Gerbe, to keep the deficit realistic. Then, at 10:43, just after the expiration of a power play, Richards managed to shovel a pass over to Hartnell, who scored into the open side of the net.
It was 4-4. All of the goaltending hysterics had been overcome, again.