by Kevin Franklin
It’s just a game.
We, as sports fans, pour an incredible amount of energy into rooting for our teams. We plan vacations around them, reschedule weddings and call in sick. There is something intrinsically therapeutic about sports which the non-sports fan could never understand. To them, it IS just a game, and they may be right. After the Phillies won the World Series in 2008, we all went back to our jobs, bills and Internet porn. Same thing after the Eagles fell short in the playoffs. The balloons shriveled, the scars healed, that old globe just kept on a-spinnin’.
Yet, on the other hand, sports was never about rational thought. Sports are a visceral odyssey, and we, as Philly sports fans, love breaking out the reminiscing bottle and passing it to everyone in the room. “Del Unser? Oh yeah, remember the time…” “I can still see Wilbert shooting through that hole like it was yesterday…” “That save by Boosh…”
That save by Brian “Boosh” Boucher…my, my, that’s where it all starts, doesn’t it? With a single save in a shootout in the last regular season game in the 2009-10 season, Boucher dragged the Flyers into the playoffs. If they lose that shootout to the New York Rangers, there are no playoffs for this team. There is no first round upset of the New Jersey Devils, a team which had vexed the home team in past playoffs. There is also no Game 7 this Friday against the Boston Bruins. Oh, you hadn’t heard? The Flyers – they of the down 3 games to 0 Flyers – have crawled, scrapped and chewed their way back to even the series at three games apiece. It hasn’t been without a certain amount of attrition, as Jeff Carter, Ian Laperriere, Claude Giroux, Simon Gagne, Blair Betts and, yes, Brian Boucher, have missed time due to injuries in these playoffs.
Football players are like longhorn sheep, with their skull-crushing hitting, or elephant seals, launching massive amounts of raw flesh against their opponents. No one doubts their toughness. Basketball, and to a lesser extent baseball, players both endure their share of physical play. But hockey players are battle-tested wolverines, schoolyard bullies, Hannibal Lecters on skates. They sacrifice teeth like old lottery tickets, gladly throwing themselves in the way of 100 mph hard rubber missiles, and when the trainer pulls the blood-stained towel away from their faces, they smile through a fractured mouth and ask, “Thank you sir, may I have another?” How many other athletes playing with a round ball would do the same?
As Friday night schedules clear throughout the Delaware Valley, the Bruins fans are feeling that acidic knot in their stomachs tightening. As we have all been reminded ad infinitum, only three teams in professional sports have come back from being down 3 games to 0 and won the next four. Two of them have been in the NHL (the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs and the 1975 New York Islanders). The third? The Boston Red Sox in 2004. That’s right, the very same Boston which is staring down the barrel of historical ignominy. It has been a hell of a series, with both teams taking the opportunity to outplay the other. The Philadelphia defense has been playing better than any time I can recall since the 1970s, shutting down the passing lanes in the slot, blockading the blue line, and avoiding the messy clear out passes which was their biggest bane in the regular season.
Speaking of the regular season, when it started, Ray Emery (remember him?) was the goalie who was going to backstop the Orange & Black to the post season. Then he went down to injury. In steps Boucher. He goes down. The Flyers then turned to bachelor #3, Michael Leighton, rescued from the unemployment line. He reaches down into his soul and plays like a man possessed. Of course, HE goes down, too. Back comes Boucher. His shootout save propels the slovenly Flyers into the playoffs, plays spectacularly, and then he goes down AGAIN. What the hell? Somewhere, Bernie Parent was doing calisthenics. However, in a fortuitous blast of kismet, guess who happened to be dressing for his first game back when Boucher went down in Game 5? That’s right, our hero, Michael Leighton. As the philosopher Homer Simpson once said, “I feel like I’m inside a cuckoo clock!”
As much as the heart-bursting fervor of Game Six likely shortened our collective lives by several years, there was a salve, of sorts, taking place on the other side of the state. The Montreal Canadiens – the eighth seed Montreal Canadiens, mind you – were busy evicting the Pittsburgh Penguins from the playoffs just an hour previous. For many Flyers fans (if not all of them), watching the Penguins get the boot was akin to the feeling of the Dallas Cowboys losing and considering every Dallas loss as an Eagles win. Tonight’s Flyers win was like a big hot fudge sundae and the Penguins loss was like…well, it was like TWO hot fudge sundaes. Maybe you’d drop some nuts on the Penguins’ sundae for fun.
So let’s take some inventory here. The top-seeded Washington Capitals are out, along with all-solar system forward Alex Ovechkin. The high-octane Penguins are gone, and with them, everyone’s favorite Snidely Whiplash, Sidney Crosby. The Buffalo Sabres are out and so is their force field goaltender, Ryan Miller. If the Flyers can keep pulling well-disciplined rabbits out of their hat on Friday and beat the Bruins, they will be the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Has a #7 ever been in that position before? I’ll take the leap and say no and let you pound away furiously on Google to prove me wrong.
After a rather lethargic regular season, we love our Flyers again. They’ve made us believe. They aren’t quite at the level as the 2008 Phillies in terms of rock-solid conviction amongst the fan base, but they currently rival Jim Fregosi’s 1993 Broad Street Bellies as far as believing beyond all better judgment. Heroes are borne in this manner, for us fans. Simon Gagne’s determination, Mike Richards’ grit, Chris Pronger’s steadfastness, the brilliance of the goaltending. Danny Briere, much maligned among the faithful, has been a sniper’s sniper, Claude Giroux skating tight circles through Black & Gold minefields, Matt Carle and Kimmo Timmonen battling like Dave and Sol-Leks, the stalwart lieutenants to Pronger’s Buck in Jack London’s Call of the Wild, playing the best hockey of their lives, fighting off the rabid dogs of Boston. And do not forget the steadying and commanding hand of coach Peter Laviolette, whose system is the foundation of the Flyers not only getting this far, but now expecting to win not only on Friday, but beyond as well.
One more win, that’s all it takes. One more win to advance and have home ice advantage in the Conference Finals. One more win to drag some of the fence sitters into the party. One more win to keep our improbable dreams alive of a Stanley Cup. One more win to help us forget the everyday machinations of real life. One more win to make history. One more win.
It’s just a game…away.
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