Veteran Boucher proves reliable for Flyers

ONCE, BRIAN BOUCHER was the vehicle of the future. Now he is your other car, the one that starts when you turn the key and gets you around town, but the one you might think twice about riding for too long, or for too far.

Once, he was the talented rookie, proving himself during a remarkable run to the seventh game of the Eastern Conference finals. Now he is old reliable, skating around the ice during timeouts to keep his legs from tightening, stretching in his crease, always stretching, pumping water into his mouth at every opportunity.

Boucher stopped 31 of 32 shots in the Flyers' 2-1 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes at the Wells Fargo Center last night, holding on to a shutout for more than 50 minutes, or until the margin of error expanded from nil.

Fourteen of his saves came in the final period, when all the goals were scored. His best might have come in the final 2 minutes, snatching a rebound with his glove after his pad got the first shot. He made all the routine saves, covered dangerous pucks in front of his crease, barked out instructions and warnings, his one clear advantage over the Russian rookie who shares the driveway with him these days.

And yet when Sunday afternoon rolls around, the kid might be back in the net against the Los Angeles Kings. The cool thing is that Brian Boucher is cool with that. He knows who he is, what he is, why he is here. He remembers the miles well, feels the dings and dents.

Now 34, he's a proud, old car.

"Absolutely," he said. "Without those learning experiences, I'd never be the player or person I am today. I think it's more the person, to be honest. I had to eat a lot of crow."

Sergei Bobrovsky is the vehicle of the future now. He's the story in Sports Illustrated, the 22-year-old undrafted free-agent signee who was supposed to make the Phantoms better, not the Flyers. He has the quickness, the acrobatics, but the next game he plays will be his 35th, matching the most games he's ever played in a single season. No one's quite sure whether he will respond as well when the miles pile up in March and the heat gets oppressive in April.

So Boucher started his 20th game last night, played as solidly as he has in most of the other 19. He won for the 13th time, shrunk his goals-against average to 2.25 and increased his save percentage to .922.

He is in the conversation about whom to play in the playoffs, and not only because of those numbers. You know how he will respond to the heat. You know he will not collapse inside, should he allow a soft goal, which the kid, at times, has done this season.

"I don't want to sit here and toot my own horn," he said. "But I really don't give up. Yeah, we all get down. We all feel bad about ourselves, right? But you've got to dust yourself off, and I think that's one of my strongest attributes. And I think that's been learned over time dealing with all those frustrations.

"My rookie year, it's hard to duplicate that. It's all downhill after that. The expectations set for myself were really high. And, to be honest with you, Philly is a tough, demanding place, and I wanted to be every bit as good as I was that rookie season, and, unfortunately, I wasn't. I took that hard.

"But it's part of who I am now."

A year ago, Boucher watched games from the press box, the Flyers' third goalie behind recovering Ray Emery and newly acquired Michael Leighton. Now he is part of a building list of improbable Philadelphia stories. Cliff Lee's return. Michael Vick's reclamation. Juan Castillo as the Eagles' defensive coordinator. The Sixers' turnaround.

Who knows, maybe he's the guy they ride into June. Certainly, it's happened before in this game, a guy hitting his stride only after the miles rolled up and the kinks were worked out.

At the very least, it's nice to have such a dependable second car. Or maybe he's more like a favorite shirt than a second car. You've had it for a while. It looks better on you than anything else, feels real comfortable, too.

That's him to us. And us to him.

"A nice fit, huh?" said Brian Boucher, with that been-there-done-that smile of his.

Yeah, nice fit. Improbable as it is. *

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