WHEN YOUR team blows a big, fat lead, sometimes the most embarrassing part of it is what you, not they, did along the way.
So it was on the grounds of the Norton Country Club in Massachusetts last May, as Peter Laviolette Sr. manned his post as starter. Good-naturedly, and not so good-naturedly, he was taunted and teased as happy-faced Bruins fans teed it up after Game 1, after Game 2, and especially after Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinal series.
"They all know him," his son and namesake was saying yesterday after Flyers practice. "So he took a lot. To a point where one guy came through when they were up 3-0 with a broom in his bag."
We all know what happened next. Peter Jr.'s Flyers won Game 4 at home in overtime, a late goal by Simon Gagne staving off elimination. They won Game 5 in Boston to return the series to Philadelphia, then won Game 6 . . . They fell behind 3-0 in Game 7 in Boston, then fought back to complete their incredible comeback.
Along the way, the broom disappeared.
"I have a lot of friends who have been Bruins fans since they were kids," said Flyers goaltender Brian Boucher, whose permanent home is in Smithfield, R.I. "They were really upset by the way it went down. Up three games to none, up three goals in Game 7. They were absolutely crushed."
The Bruins and Flyers meet for the first time since that series tonight at the Wells Fargo Center, each team's hot start cooled off of late by slow first-period starts. The Bruins have been propelled by the play of veteran Tim Thomas, a goalie who wasn't even the starter last May. The Flyers' early jump has been fueled by rookie Sergei Bobrovsky, a goalie not even on the team's radar when the teams last met.
Gagne is gone, traded to Tampa in the offseason. It is uncertain whether Boucher or Bobrovsky will get the start for the Flyers, or whether this game will have any extra buzz because of what occurred last spring.
"They've added pieces to their lineup," Laviolette said. "It's a new team. Ours is a new team . . . Games where there's expectations of certain levels or certain anger, a lot of times they don't come to pass. Everyone thought the Rangers game was going to be this slugfest. There were a few fights, but mostly it was just good hockey."
The Rangers lost a chance to reach the playoffs in that final-game shootout. If Boucher doesn't make a big save, the Flyers don't get a chance to knock off New Jersey, to make history in Boston, to tick off all those habitants in Montreal. They have played all three already this season; been beaten by all three, too.
Laviolette is right. It's not the same. When the Flyers lost a shootout to Calgary after a controversial penalty to Chris Pronger negated an overtime goal last Friday, the players pointed not to the officiating, but to themselves. They didn't play well enough to get two points. There was no lament, because they believed they would win the next game, and the one after that.
They carry themselves differently now.
"We had a lot of learning experiences last year," Boucher said. "We had some real down times during the season. Our coach got fired, we had peaks and valleys after that. We had to scrape to get in. Then we got in. We had a real strong first round. And then we had to come back. All those were learning experiences.
"And I think going to the final and falling just short, maybe you thought, is this team going to be complacent coming into training camp, thinking that wins are just going to come to us. But by and large we've played really hard. And we've paid attention to detail. And we've had a sense of urgency to our game. Which I think at the start of last year we did not have. I can say we did not have it right up to mid-December. We won games, but we didn't have that same drive."
When John Stevens was fired and replaced by Laviolette on Dec. 4, 2009, the Flyers' record was 13-11-1. It was as deceiving as their place in the standings, but the muse was short-lived. Laviolette lost, 8-2, to the Capitals in his first game as coach, and the Flyers lost eight of his first 10 games with the team to free fall toward the bottom of the league's overall standings. Goalies were hurt, dropped, added. Players like Scott Hartnell seemed lost and were benched.
"That team last year came a long way," Laviolette said. "From 29th place, through the turmoil written about. Coaching changes. Injuries. Down to last game of the year. There is a lot put in that added some strength to us, gave us some resolve."
That's the relevance of tonight, that the Flyers used the Bruins last spring to find and define themselves. Oh, it can still go south in a hurry in the National Hockey League, as both teams can attest. History's relevance has always been about the future, not the past. And for both teams that future is less about tonight's game than it is about the grind that lies ahead.
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