THIS TIME OF the year it's a game of attrition. At least it's supposed to be. The Rangers lose Brian Boyle; bodies were falling for the Bruins like toy soldiers. You make do.
Except for here. Here in Philadelphia they keep adding on. Erik Gustafsson has become an important piece. Sunday will be noted as James van Riemsdyk's renaissance, but if you watched, and particularly if you were there, you saw Eric Wellwood flying past Devils, drawing penalties, his effect on the game growing in possibilities . . . and potence.
"Experience is something that's huge, especially at this level of hockey," Wellwood was saying after the Flyers' 4-3 overtime win in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal against New Jersey. "I feel a lot more comfortable now. I feel like I can make a lot more plays than say I would in the first round. Especially playing against [Pittsburgh's Evgeni] Malkin. I was just trying to get the puck deep and be safe."
There was nothing safe about him Sunday. The coach calls it jam, that extra push, that speed that pops open pucks and creates dangerous rushes, but for most of the first 20 minutes the Flyers looked like a team that had collectively just crawled out of bed. A byproduct of their weeklong layoff maybe, or New Jersey's stick-maddening style of play. Outshot 15-6 in the first period, their first shot on goal was a Matt Carle dump-in that came after 11 straight Devils shots.
They needed something. And to say this game swung on Wellwood's efforts would be overstatement. Danny Briere's second-period breakaway goal tied the game and van Riemsdyk turned the Devils into chasers with a rebound blast over Martin Brodeur a little later. But Wellwood's speed was that little extra jam the Devils didn't seem to plot for, his breakneck speed creating one power play, his gritty play in front of New Jersey's net creating another. The second enabled the Flyers to take a 3-2, third-period lead that should have held up.
So you won't find him on the scoresheet. Yet. But you will notice, more and more. The newness of the experience is over, and thus the puck seems to stay on his stick a little longer than when this postseason began. He looked so fast Sunday, so dangerous, because the game is slowing down for him.
"I would say that would be an accurate statement," Wellwood said. "Now I'm used to the crowd and what it's like. And the whole playoff atmosphere.
"I'm still playing against elite players. But it feels now like I have a little more time with the puck."
That feeling will increase. As will his input. Maybe not on the scoresheet, but in the game of attrition, and perhaps in the rediscovered game of van Riemsdyk, whom he might be aligned with at times. Skating as he had in last year's playoffs, showing no lingering effects from the various injuries he dealt with all season - even after being mugged for most of the third period and into overtime - JVR was an element the Flyers did not have in the first round, one that will continue to come in handy against New Jersey's clutter-crease strategies. He nearly won this game for the Flyers with a late third-period breakaway, shot just high on another occasion, and if not for the suddenly lax officiating, would have drawn a slew of penalties of his own.
He scored a goal yesterday. He screened Marty Brodeur on Briere's overtime winner. Brodeur said he prevented him from using his stick on the winning goal. And he paid the price for each a few dozen times over. "I was getting hacked in all different kinds of directions," he said with a smile at one point during the Sunday media scrum that followed.
It's easy to forget now, but when Keith Primeau had that amazing playoff run in 2004, he began the playoffs as a third-line checking center. At least that's how it started, before teams began matching their best checkers against him.
If you haven't already, check out how many big goals Max Talbot scored for Pittsburgh in a similar role.
New Jersey will have no such luxury with their checkers on JVR and Briere and Jakub Voracek. Claude Giroux and his mates will draw that attention. Because even on a bad night, they should.
As for Wellwood? Well, as the game continues to slow for him, he's only going to get faster. Sean Couturier already has a hat trick in this postseason. Talbot predictably has been big. Now Wellwood?
You need this kind of stuff to happen to win a Stanley Cup, your team adding as the other team subtracts. And man, so far, it's happening here.
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