It's wild, it's crazy, but Flyers stay alive
BUFFALO - Forget what you thought you knew about hockey. This first-round series between the Buffalo Sabres and the Flyers is defying common wisdom and occasionally the laws of physics.
"I've been through some pretty wild and crazy games over my career," Flyers center Danny Briere said after scoring two more goals against his former team. "Certainly today was one of them. The roller-coaster ride that it was - my heart definitely skipped a few beats today."
The reigning Vezina Trophy winner as the NHL's best goaltender, Ryan Miller, has two shutouts in this series. The Flyers have started and yanked three goalies after they surrendered spirit-crushing, three-goal first periods. The Sabres' special teams have completely outclassed those of the Flyers.
Naturally, the series is dead even. Each team has won three games. Each team has one win and two losses in its own arena. Game 7, for good or for ill, is in the Wells Fargo Center Tuesday night.
"It's best of one," said Chris Pronger, the towering, glowering defenseman who made his tentative return to the lineup with a surgically repaired right hand.
For the first time since Game 2, there is no doubt who will start in goal for the Flyers. Even Peter Laviolette, who is loath to reveal such vital information, couldn't play possum after his gut instinct to go with Michael Leighton Sunday turned into a gut punch for his team.
"Brian Boucher will start Game 7," Laviolette said.
For once, there is no cause for debate. Rookie Sergei Bobrovsky is in hockey Siberia somewhere after he melted down in Game 2. Boucher played well in relief to win that game and in Game 3 and 4 starts. Then, in Game 5 Friday night in Philadelphia, it was his turn to fall apart. He was yanked after giving up three goals, including two from absurd angles, in the first period.
Enter Leighton, who was solid before allowing the overtime winner to Buffalo rookie Tyler Ennis. Given another no-headed coin to toss, Laviolette went with Leighton.
"Decisions are tough," Laviolette said after listing Leighton's play Friday, in practice and in the American Hockey League as reasons for his choice. "It didn't go that way tonight for him."
Leighton laid an egg in this Easter elimination game. Boucher, frustrated after getting word Saturday that he would be back on the bench, returned. He allowed one goal and made a handful of extremely tough saves to keep the Flyers alive until Ville Leino flicked in the game-winner in overtime.
After the last two performances by Boucher and Leighton, last year's run to the Stanley Cup Finals seems even more amazing. Somehow, between injuries and coaching decisions, the right guy always seemed to be in net until the very last game. This year, with Bobrovsky added to the mix, it's the other way around.
"Isn't it always bizarre in Philadelphia for goaltenders?" Boucher said. "I'm used to it. I knew when I came back here what I was getting myself into. You just roll with the punches and deal with it. There have been a couple uppercuts."
Now it all comes down to a single game, Miller vs. Boucher. The nastiness level has risen exponentially as the series has ground on. Briere said he was inspired when an unnamed Sabre said something "personal and across the line" to him during the second period. Considering the future scar forming on his left cheek, that must have been quite an insult.
Briere stood up before the third period and implored his teammates not to let their season end.
"I got fired up," Laviolette said.
After the game, Miller fired a shot across the bow of Flyers captain Mike Richards, who drew a penalty for running Tim Connolly into the boards in the corner. Connolly did not return. Richards' five-minute major for elbowing in Game 4 was not reviewed by the league office. This one might be.
Playing off Richards' comments last week, Miller said, "If Mike Richards thinks we're getting away with murder, I don't know what he just got away with. Mass murder? Are we stepping up a notch? Unbelievable."
The whole series has been unbelievable. Given the close scores, the wild momentum swings, the burgeoning grudges and the stakes, Game 7 has the chance to be a classic.
Win it, and the Flyers will reignite the flame they nurtured all the way into June last year. Win it, and Briere's speech, Boucher's return and Leino's goal become part of the lore - just like that impossible comeback against the Bruins in 2010.
The Flyers will still have goaltending problems. Pronger will still be limited. Jeff Carter will still be hurt. But advance to the next round and anything is possible. The Flyers proved that last year.
Forget what you know. They made it to Game 7.
Follow columnist Phil Sheridan on Twitter at twitter.com/SheridanScribe.