They have dressed seven goalies because of injuries, gone through two head coaches, and endured a regular season that defined mediocrity.

For the Flyers, none of that matters now. Not when they are peaking at just the right time. Not when they feel there's nothing they can't overcome.

And not when they are going to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since 1997.

The Flyers, sparked by a had-to-see-it-to-believe-it shorthanded goal by Mike Richards, won the Eastern Conference title tonight by defeating the Montreal Canadiens, 4-2, before a roaring, ole-ole-ole-singing crowd at the Wachovia Center.

The hard-earned triumph enabled the Flyers to win the conference finals, four games to one. They will face the Chicago Blackhawks starting Saturday at 8 p.m. in the Windy City.

One team is going to end a long drought. The Flyers have not won the Cup since 1975; the Blackhawks last won the title in 1961.

Arron Asham and Jeff Carter (two goals) also scored for the Flyers. Carter's empty-net goal, set up by Richards' ferocious forechecking, locked up the win with 22 seconds left.

Montreal had made it 3-2 when Scott Gomez scored from out front with 13 minutes, 7 seconds left in the third period. The Habs then got a four-minute power play because of a high-sticking penalty on Chris Pronger with 10:48 remaining.

The Flyers killed off about 21/2 minutes of it - getting great work from Blair Betts, Richards, Darroll Powe, Claude Giroux and Ian Laperriere - before Montreal's Glen Metropolit was assessed a tripping penalty.

Montreal killed the penalty, making the Flyers 0 for 6 on the power play.

With about 3:30 left, a defensive breakdown left Tomas Plekanec alone in front, but goalie Michael Leighton turned aside his backhander. A minute later, with Montreal swarming the net, Leighton made a key stop on Brian Gionta from the doorstep.

The Flyers will try to get their names engraved on the same Cup as franchise legends Bernie Parent, Bobby Clarke, Bill Barber and the rest, but it will be a supreme challenge.

Based on Chicago's 112-point regular season and its four-game sweep of San Jose in the Western Conference finals, the Blackhawks (52-22-8) will be favored. But the Flyers (41-35-6), who managed just 88 points during the regular season, have won eight of their last nine playoff games and should be formidable challengers.

Chicago, which swept the Flyers in a 1971 series that marked the only time the teams have met in the playoffs, last reached the Cup Finals in 1992.

The Flyers scored two late goals to rally past the Blackhawks, 3-2, on March 13. It was their only meeting of the season, and Leighton made 39 saves to notch the win.

Asham, who fired wide on a breakaway late in the first period, gave the Flyers a 2-1 lead when he backhanded a shot past Jaroslav Halak with 16:53 left in the second.

"I only have one move," said Asham, smiling. "I used it twice and it worked once, so that's good."

After a turnover by Andrei Kostitsyn as he was pressured by Claude Giroux, Matt Carle fired a perfect pass to Asham, who was alone in front and scored his third goal of the playoffs.

"Ole, ole-ole-ole, ole, ole," the fans chanted.

A little less than 11/2 minutes later, Carter made it 3-1 when he scored from the slot after a perfect setup by Richards, who was behind the net when he quickly tapped it to Carter in front with 15:29 to play in the second period.

A spectacular shorthanded goal by Richards enabled the Flyers to tie the score at 1 in the first period.

From deep in his own zone, Giroux lifted a long touch pass into the Montreal end. Halak skated about 25 feet out of the net in an attempt to beat Richards to the puck. Richards, racing down the middle of the ice with defenseman Roman Hamrlik a step behind him, reached the puck about a foot from Halak. Somehow, Richards got off a lunging, one-handed shot that caromed off the goalie and toward the empty net.

Halak and Hamrlik collided, and Richards leaned down between the two players, sliced toward the net and backhanded a shot into the empty goal with 15:35 left in the opening period.

It was an instant classic, a goal that will undoubtedly make the NHL's popular "history will be made" commercials that have been shown during the playoffs.

"I was just watching him to see if he came out," Richards said, referring to Halak. "He did, and I just tried to poke it by him. I don't know what happened with it, but the puck ended up back on my stick and I was able to put it in."

Montreal had taken a 1-0 lead 59 seconds into the game on a right-circle blast by Gionta that went under Leighton's right pad. Gionta was set up nicely by Gomez.

"I think we came out a little tentative, maybe a little bit nervous," Richards said. "They capitalized on one of the plays that we had a breakdown on. Then we started making plays, passing the puck better, seeing each other, helping each other out, and it paid off a little bit."

Halak kept Montreal ahead when he stopped Braydon Coburn's blast from the slot with 15:55 left in the first period. Twenty seconds later, Richards scored a goal that will live in Flyers lore because of its uniqueness - and because it propelled the Flyers into the finals for the first time in 13 years.

Contact staff writer Sam Carchidi at 215-854-518 or scarchidi@phillynews.com.
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