The Flyers will play their most important game of the season Wednesday night and the biggest game in franchise history since . . . well, when exactly?
You could make an argument that Games 4-7 of the conference semifinals series against Boston this year were the biggest, with every game an elimination game.
Or, stepping back just a bit, point to the shoot-out win that ended the season and allowed the Flyers to make the playoffs, avoiding an outcome that would have branded this season not just a disappointment, but an utter disaster.
But those games were merely mossy stones across a flowing river, each a step toward the elusive promise of playing for the Stanley Cup.
Well, this is the Stanley Cup Finals. They are playing for the right to skate around with the big trash can for the first time since 1975. That is how the relative importance of games is measured in the NHL, which means Wednesday's game is the biggest by that calculation since June 3, 1997.
On that night, the Flyers played the second game of the Finals against the Detroit Red Wings in the CoreStates Center, which was the banque du jour for their home arena at the time. They had lost the opener, and as daunting as a two-games-to-none deficit is in the history of the Stanley Cup Finals, losing the first two games at home is a true death knell.
And they lost again, on the way to being swept out of the series.
So, for argument's sake, this next game against the Chicago Blackhawks is the biggest for the franchise since that night 13 years ago. If you've been counting at home, ticking them off shift-by-shift, that is nearly 1,200 games, a long time even by the elongated, excruciating history of near misses by the Flyers.
Fortunately, the current players know all about the stakes of this game, and the outcome means even more to them.
"It's the biggest game of the year, and we're going to be ready for it," Simon Gagne said.
How exactly to give the team its best chance of winning the game falls to coach Peter Laviolette, who twisted the dials in the first two games like someone trying to adjust the tint on an old television set. The faces were a touch too purple in Game 1 as the Flyers tried to match the speed and scoring of the Blackhawks, and too green in Game 2 as he slowed down the game by inserting forward Dan Carcillo on his top line for more physical play.
The game certainly slowed, but the Flyers only managed three shots on goal in a wasted first period in which they, predictably, found themselves spending some of their energy killing penalties. The second period was better, but not by much, particularly when the Blackhawks broke through for two scores at the end.
"The first two periods we were too conservative," Danny Briere said.
After that, with Chicago holding a 2-0 lead, both teams went into a frenzy, essentially ditching their fourth lines, and the Flyers pressed the action while the Blackhawks tried desperately to hold on. Chicago was outshot, 15-4, in final period, with the Flyers going back to their more potent scoring alignments, but they were able to find the net just once.
"They started to sit back and we took advantage of it," Chris Pronger said.
It will be interesting to see which path Laviolette chooses for Wednesday's game at the Wachovia Center, where the Flyers are 7-1 in the postseason. He certainly doesn't want to get into another shoot-out, with goalie Michael Leighton trying to match shot-stopping abilities with Antti Niemi. The Blackhawks goalie had 32 saves Monday, and was cool against the fusillade he faced in the third period. Chicago, which hasn't lost a road game since April 20, isn't likely to lose its composure whatever happens early.
On the other hand, a quiet, defensive opening here could sap the life from the building and dampen the momentum the team would gain from breaking through early before its amped-up fans. For reference, of course, the Flyers will be relying on their comeback this postseason against the Bruins.
"In the Boston series, we knew we were the better team, even when we were down, 2-0," defenseman Kimmo Timonen said. "You can't say that here, because they are a good team and playing well. But that third period [on Monday] was all about us. We just have to keep playing that way for 60 minutes. When we are at home, we have to make sure we have that same next gear."
If it is a plea to the coach to allow them to go down swinging, perhaps that is the way to read it. Coaches don't get paid to give the players what they want, however. They get paid to do what they think is the best way to win.
"We proved to ourselves [against Boston] that all it takes is one [win] and then you build off that," Pronger said. "That's what we have to do. We have to defend our home ice and get this series back on track."
The team has played 13 years since facing a game as big. A dinosaur named Paul Coffey was on that last team. He turned 49 on Tuesday. It goes that quickly, and sometimes waiting for a game this important goes very slowly.
The Flyers find themselves at this place again and, fairly or not, how the current team is remembered will largely be decided before the night is over.
Contact columnist Bob Ford
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