Perseverance pays off for Flyers' Boucher

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The Flyers will need another good series out of goalie Brian Boucher to get past the Bruins. (Yong Kim / Staff Photographer)

Sitting at his locker-room stall wearing flip-flops and the sweat from another brisk practice, Brian Boucher tilted his head back and erupted in laughter before answering the question.

"No," the Flyers goalie said when asked whether he found the persistent references to him as a journeyman to be insulting. "I am a journeyman, but I'm proud of my career."

One of Webster's definitions of a journeyman is: A competent but routine worker or performer.

That pretty much sums up Boucher's career.

So far.

At 33 and considerably more traveled than any of the 16 goalies who began the NHL playoffs, Boucher gave a performance that was anything but routine during the Flyers' first-round dispatching of the second-seeded New Jersey Devils.

After Boucher backstopped the Flyers during a desperate stretch run that culminated in a must-have shoot-out victory over Henrik Lundqvist and the New York Rangers on the tense final day of the regular season, he outplayed the great Martin Brodeur to lead the Flyers into the second round against Boston.

In the five games against the Devils, Boucher allowed three even-strength goals, none over the final three games, for a 1.59 goals-against average and a .940 save percentage. Those numbers rank ahead of all other postseason goalies, including Team USA Olympic hero Ryan Miller of Buffalo and Detroit's rookie sensation, Jimmy Howard.

Almost to a man, those who know Boucher agree that few players, if any, are more deserving of success than Boucher. He is admired because his career has been defined by resilience. Since he became the Flyers' first-round pick, No. 22 overall, in the 1995 NHL amateur draft, Boucher has played for five other clubs. He's been signed as a free agent five times, claimed off waivers once, and sent to the minors twice.

"I couldn't be happier for him, and I believe his teammates feel the same way," Flyers goaltenders coach Jeff Reese said. "For me, the greatest thing about this is Boosh deserves to play well."

Flyers assistant coach Craig Berube was a teammate of Boucher's with the Flyers and coached him when Boucher was with the Phantoms.

"You go through what he's been through, and if you don't have character you're not going to make it," Berube said. "I have a lot of respect for him, and I'm happy for him."

Added team captain Mike Richards, "He's obviously a resilient guy. He's obviously been wanted by a lot of teams just because of his character."

 

A sad day

Boucher learned long ago to swallow his pride and take things as they come. Through all the years of moving from one city to the next, from Philadelphia to Phoenix to Calgary to Chicago to Columbus to San Jose and back to Philly, he said he felt a sense of rejection only once.

It came the first time he was traded, when the Flyers dealt him to Phoenix before the 2002-03 season in a package that brought tough two-way center Michal Handzus and goalie Robert Esche. Boucher's career had gotten off to a promising start. His rookie season, 1999-2000, he went 20-10-3 with a 1.91 GAA. In 18 playoff games that season, he went 11-7 with a 2.03 GAA and was within one win of making it to the Stanley Cup Finals.

But the Flyers squandered a lead of three games to one against the Devils. Boucher was named to the NHL all-rookie team.

"When the Flyers traded me to Phoenix, it was a sad day for me," he recalled. "I figured it was the end of my time in Philly, and you feel like a team somewhat gave up on you, rejected you, and that's a tough thing.

"Since then, I've been on six teams now, so you kind of become numb. You turn the page quicker. You look around the league. Guys move all the time. It's not like you're the only guy who gets traded. It's something you've got to learn right away."

After the move to Phoenix, where he set a modern-day record with five consecutive shutouts, Boucher, an optimist by nature, said that with each subsequent trade the prevailing feeling was not one of rejection but of being wanted. It's what has made his journey bearable.

"Not a lot of guys get to stay in one place and play a 12-, 15-year career," he said. "The nature of this game is you get moved. You get put in different situations with teams that are good and teams that aren't so good. You've got to roll with the punches.

"My rookie year was great, and then I got traded, so you learn early on to be humble. I'm proud of the way I've hung in there. For me, it's my best attribute - I don't give up. I don't look at the disappointments. I tend to look at 10 years in the league and still going, and I'm having fun."

Boucher said he never reached a stage where he felt he'd had enough. But there was a point when he worried the NHL had had enough of him. It came after the 2006-07 season, when he played for Chicago and Columbus. He injured his shoulder with four games to go that season, and his phone wasn't ringing as he waited for a job offer during the summer. The Flyers, who had long ago sent him packing, came to his rescue.

Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren called Boucher and asked him if he'd be willing to play for the Phantoms in the AHL.

After half a season with the Phantoms, San Jose signed him as a free agent just before the trade deadline.

"It was probably the lowest point in my career, but it was also important because it was gut-check time for me," he said. "I was able to work my way back."

 

'He persevered'

Flyers goalie scout Neil Little, a career minor-leaguer, was Boucher's teammate when the Phantoms won the Calder Cup in 1998. Boucher was his backup. Little said that the two remain close friends and that Boucher, who is understated in his public comments, does great impersonations and is one of the funniest men he knows.

"He started from scratch again," Little said. "He found his game, found his confidence, and obviously it was noted, and he got scooped up and had a nice run. He persevered."

After Boucher played a year and a half as a San Jose backup, the Flyers called again in their never-ending goalie merry-go-round. He began the season backing up Ray Emery, whom the Flyers signed after letting Marty Biron and Antero Niittymaki go.

"When we talked about getting a goalie and Boosh's name came up, we talked about all the adversity he'd overcome," Reese said. "It factored into the decision."

Boucher became the Flyers' No. 1 goalie after Emery was lost for the season with a degenerative hip condition that is career-threatening.

But true to the travails his career has presented him, Boucher suffered another disappointment. A native of Woonsocket, R.I., he looked forward to playing in the Winter Classic on New Year's Day in Boston. A week before the game, he was sidelined with a finger injury. Michael Leighton took over in goal, the Flyers went on a run, and Boucher was again a backup.

"After Ray got hurt, Boosh finally got his chance, and he was playing really well," Reese said. "He wasn't getting results because we weren't scoring at the time, and then he had the finger injury and Leighton came in and played extremely well for us. And the team started to score.

"Not only has he fought through a lot of adversity in his career, he's also fought through a lot of adversity this year as well."

With 13 games remaining in the regular season, Leighton went down with a high-ankle sprain, and Boucher was back in the nets, this time for the stretch run. Since then, he's been at his best when it has mattered most, unspectacular but steady, calm and mistake-free.

"The tenacity that's enabled him to keep going despite all he's been through is carrying over into his play, the way he battles," Reese said. "Obviously, he's feeling very good about his game right now. Position-wise he's very strong, and his patience has been very good. He's finding the puck in traffic, shots are sticking to him, and his rebounds have been very good."

At the start of the playoffs, Sports Illustrated ranked the 16 postseason goaltenders. Boucher was ranked 16th, which seemed to make sense considering he played in only four playoff games between his rookie season with the Flyers and this season.

It also made sense because he's, well, he's a journeyman.

"After you take your lumps, you've got to get back to work and keep plugging away," Boucher said. "It's not peaches and cream every day."

 


Contact staff writer Ray Parrillo at 215-854-2743 or rparrillo@phillynews.com.