NEWARK, N.J. -- Chris Pronger was talking about the Stanley Cup tournament the other day, his sport’s most special time; sorry, Olympics. On the eve of the Flyers’ annual journey, which could last until next week or until June, Pronger said, “It’s the hardest trophy in sports to win, with the physical attrition and the mental attrition that happens in the playoffs.”
The NFL is more physically brutal in some ways, but there is a week between games, not a day. Baseball is more relentless, and mentally exhausting, but does not present the same challenges to the body. Basketball takes almost the same number of games to win, but the other team is not carrying weapons the whole time. Only hockey so severely tests an athlete on every level.
But it always begins with a first step.
A quiet, often-tentative first step.
For the Flyers, it was like that. Before the second period turned so strongly in their favor -- before the territorial edge began to swing for them; before Pronger and Mike Richards scored their goals; before they hung a 2-1 result on the scoreboard and quieted the crowd at the Prudential Center -- they needed something to hold their place.
Most of it was solid, and increasingly-confident goaltending from Brian Boucher. Some of it was probably good fortune. Some of it was probably the law of averages, too; the Flyers, after all, had lost Game 1 in six straight playoff series before last night, going all the way back to 2004. They were due.
And now the underdog is on the other foot, or something. And now, the journey for this Flyers team has reached its first, tentative milepost.
“You’ve got to be prepared to do whatever it takes for what essentially boils down to 2 months,” Pronger said. It was a real statement, too, not just a sound bite. There are few sadder sights than the losing locker room of a team eliminated from the conference finals, a single step before the big show. Only then, amid the emotions, do you find out about dislocations that were relocated, somehow, and sprains that were camouflaged medicinally.
It really is brutal. But the thing is, it always starts with that first step, and it is often so unsteady and unsure. It was how last night started at Prudential Center, with the Flyers and Devils. Neither was a great team this season. Neither got out of the first round of the playoffs last year. Both have different coaches and both are striving for an identity -- the Flyers, especially. And it showed.
Eighty-two games of jockeying was done. A pristine record existed for both, 0-0, hopeful and frightening at the same time. You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t have doubts, worries, jitters, all of that. For all of them, so much is at stake.
Given all of that, the Flyers needed Boucher to be excellent, and he was. The only goal he allowed, with 2:43 left in the third period, was on a puck that deflected off of teammate Ian Laperriere’s stick. It’s a funny thing playoff goaltending. It’s never about how you stop them. It’s always about how many you stop. But it’s also about when you stop them. Every game has moments, sequences where things turn. If Boucher had not been very good at the start, that game might have turned -- such was fragility of everyone’e emotions.
But because he held them in, the Flyers were given some time to get their feet under them and to take advantage of things that were becoming available at the other end of the ice. Pronger scored the first one, with a backhanded whack at a rebound in front of Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur.
“Well, really, it was turnovers,” Pronger said. “We were getting our feet moving and getting into the game -- which means getting pucks in deep, crashing and banging and creating turnovers and getting pucks to the net. But the biggest thing was turnovers and we did a better job in the second period.”
Pronger now has eight points in seven games against the Devils this season. The Flyers now have six wins in seven games against the Devils this season.
“I don’t know,” Pronger said. “I’m just getting some good looks and getting opportunities, I guess. We’ve played pretty well against them throughout the course of the season.”
But this is different, as he well knows.
Still, the first steps can be the hardest.