NEWARK, N.J. -- Sports Illustrated ranked the NHL playoff goaltenders this week, No. 1 to No. 16. You do not have to guess who No. 16 was. At this point, all you have to do is appreciate the irony.
With Brian Boucher, with the Flyers, with this playoff series against the New Jersey Devils, everybody’s expectations were their own. There is no way to know what is in anyone’s heart, after all. But a fair reading of Boucher’s play at the end of the regular season -- he has a .931 save percentage in the Flyers’ last five games -- led an objective person to conclude that the Flyers could expect competent and consistent play from their goaltender as the pressure of the playoffs began to be turned up.
But who saw spectacular?
Even in defeat last night, that is what Boucher was -- spectacular. Even though it ended with the Devils winning the game, 5-3 -- winning the game and evening the series at a game apiece -- Boucher was everything a playoff team could want from its goaltender. Even though Dainius Zubrus was able to break a tense, wild 3-3 tie by desperately whacking a puck out of a crowd in front and getting it past Boucher, at 15:56 of the third period, the quality of Boucher’s play was not diminished in the least.
He is the reason the Flyers are tied in this series. Period. And for a guy who arrived this season as a backup, and who had to fight through injuries and inactivity to get to this place, it is already an amazing story.
Late after Game 1, Flyers coach Peter Laviolette was talking about the whole crazy phenomenon.
"Without sounding like it's a cliche, life's about opportunities,” Laviolette said. “He's been patiently, and sometimes not patiently, waiting for his.
“Mike Leighton came on the scene when he was hurt. Ray Emery was here and he was playing well. And I don't think you ever sign up in the National Hockey League really to be a backup goaltender. In order to get to this level, you have a drive to be the best, a drive to be No. 1, or you don't make it to this level. I think that's within most players...
“I'll go back to what I said, life's about opportunities,” he said. “He got in there, he got into game conditions, eventually he worked out some kinks and he's been rock-solid for us. That's what you need from a goaltender."
Boucher made more big saves than there is space to describe them. In the first period, he made two stops on Zach Parise as he stood on the doorstep and whacked away at rebounds. Then, soon after, there was another save on Parise as he worked alone in front.
There was at shorthanded stop on Patrik Elias as he walked in on a semi-breakaway in the second period. There was another save on a rocket off of the stick of Matthew Corrente. David Clarkson got a great chance off of a crazy ricochet from behind the net and Boucher actually looked behind him to see if it was in. And then he somehow robbed Elias again, from right in front and with a yawning, open net there to be hit.
It was a shame for the Flyers to waste such an effort. Then again, it is just as easy to argue that it was not a waste. It is just as easy to see the reality of the series as it stands today: tied at one apiece, but with the Flyers much farther ahead than they had a right to expect -- farther ahead because Boucher has begun to build something here, something more solid, something greater, than anyone had a right to expect.
Going into last night, the Devils’ Jamie Langenbrunner was saying that the his team had to become more desperate in Game 2, which is a classic hockey cliche (which, like most cliches, has a lot of truth in it). Anyway, Laviolette was asked what he thought of Langenbrunner’s sentiments.
“I think that’s just, what else is he going to say?” Laviolette said. “That’s the way the playoffs are. I’m sure they’re not sitting over there saying, ‘0-2’s not a bad spot to be in.’ They’re ramping it up because they need to win it. I said yesterday that it’s less about who’s on a roll and more about desperation.”
Everybody in the Prudential Center knew the deal last night. Playoff hockey is hard enough when you are playing against five skaters and a goaltender. It is murderous when the mathematicians and the historians decide it is time to pull on the other team’s sweater as well.
And, well, the numbers are stark. Going into last night, 302 teams had fallen behind by two games to none in the history of best-of-seven NHL playoff series. Of those 302 teams, 40 came from behind to win the series, which is 13.2 percent, which is more than daunting.
That was what was on the line last night -- and the Flyers didn’t get it. This is a series, as we all expected. And Boucher has been excellent, which a lot of people did not.