by Kevin Franklin
History is riddled with underdogs spitting in the face of the neighborhood bully and administering a humbling beating upon its supposed superior foe. Davey didn’t listen to the oddsmakers before he knocked Goliath to the canvas. Cassius Clay upended Sonny Liston, Joe Namath – Beauty Mist pantyhose and all – led the Jets over the Colts in Super Bowl III and Villanova shot the lights out in the building, sending the Hoyas and their Goliath, Patrick Ewing, home – suitably rocked.
The Philadelphia Flyers return home to the Whatever Bank is Going to Gobble Us Up Next Center, tied with the second-seeded New Jersey Devils, 1-1, in their best of seven opening round series. The Flyers crashed the playoff party a second before they shut the doors by winning in a shoot-out against the Rangers in the last game of the regular season. It was win or go home and the boys in Orange and Black obviously weren’t looking forward to extended visits to the “honey-do” jar, so they decided to actually win one of those overtime skills competitions, reversing years of ineptitude in that event. So, they made it in by the skin of their collective missing teeth, hair mussed, sweat stains on their shirts and dirty fingernails and proceed to smack the host and dance with his girl. Tonight’s loss against said same host does nothing to diminish the fact the Flyers now possess home-ice advantage for one very simple reason – they worked hard.
Having watched the Flyers for almost 40 years, one immutable truth has always gripped me: if you outwork and outhustle the other team, more times than not, you will win. It’s a pretty simple formula, actually. Talent is as talent does, but oftentimes this season, this team was confusing ability with talent. Ability is having the necessary skills; talent is the proper application of those skills. You won’t win all of the games where you convert ability to talent, but you will win the games you should. Should the Flyers have won tonight’s game? Maybe, maybe not. The Devils were not going to hand over their wallets and say, “oh, by the way, here’s my PIN, too.” Since their first taste of Lord Stanley’s nectar in the mid-1990s, the Devils may not have had the most skill, but they damn sure made certain they would always outwork their opponent. GM Lou Lamoriello must be a master witch doctor or there has to be some sort of zombie voodoo powder in the stitching of the New Jersey uniform, because you rarely see the Devils outworked.
What we have seen thus far in the playoffs is a Flyers team converting ability to talent, and that is impossible without hard work and determination. There are still maddening elements in their game. How often will we continue to see sloppy outlet passes in the slot, carrying the puck through Brian Boucher’s crease and bewildering drop passes onto the other team’s sticks? Captain Mike Richards’s game suffers when he tries to be too much of a playmaker, Jeff Carter, their greyhound sniper, scares the bejeesus out of the paying customers behind the net with his misguided lasers and someone please have a seance for the Braydon Coburn of two years ago because he’s playing like he’s using a 50 lb. stick. The most maddening of all has to be Claude Giroux. He’s like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice: bedazzling one minute and confounding the next. He’s Wayne Gretzky and Wayne Newton – sometimes on the same shift. Don’t get me wrong, every player on the roster has had his own private hate club this season, even stalwart defenseman Chris Pronger, but there has been a different look, a different feel, in the two playoff games so far. The mistakes are still there, but their diligence and hustle has overcome a lot of those errors.
Ask any player, coach, fan or talking head and they will tell you the playoffs are another brand of hockey altogether. Stakes are raised, home ice is one stolen victory away, regardless of how far down the seed chart you are and you get to cross sticks with your opponent up to seven games. It’s like sharing a jail cell with someone who stole your girlfriend. If this series goes seven games, ask New Jersey’s star forward Ilya Kovelchuk if he wants Ian Laperriere, Aaron Asham or Mike Richards riding herd on him for another seven. You’ll probably receive an education in Russian profanity. Kovalchuk’s frustration is as obvious as a prom night pimple. A lot of that has to do with the goaltending of the enigmatic Boucher, who has had some stellar moments in this series so far. The Flyers won Game 1 because they played Flyers hockey. They lost tonight because New Jersey played Devils hockey, but it was a battle and the Flyers just as easily could have won the game and returned home with a 2-0 series lead. The Flyers have to feel they are in the Devils’ heads, having taken the regular season series, five game to one. Frankly, they have to be glad they are playing New Jersey, as a date with the Penguins or Capitals may have been a different story. I do not think the Flyers were ready to play either of those two teams, but if they emerge victorious in this series against the Devils, it might be the confidence boost they need to feel the ice is a bit more level.
The playoffs are a new season. In the 1991 Finals, the Minnesota North Stars – they of the 27-39-14 record – took the powerhouse Pittsburgh Penguins to the sixth game of the Stanley Cup finals. In 1937-38, the Chicago Blackhawks scored the fewest goals in the league (97) and gave up the second most (139), so what did they do? They celebrated the repeal of the Volstead Act of a few years earlier by drinking whatever upturned bottles they could empty into the Stanley Cup by the time the ice chips had settled. Want something a little more relatable? How about those very same New Jersey Devils of 1994-95? They were the fifth seed in the East and ended up with a parade in their parking lot with their dozens of fans. That was also the year the league mandated a rule stating any severe check from behind would result in an automatic major penalty and game misconduct. Apparently, the referee watching Claude Giroux get tattooed in just that fashion must have been wondering which American Idol contestant he was thinking of voting for at that very moment because even the Devils players were rubbing the hell out of their rabbit’s feet on that play.
Regardless, it was a good effort and a great game to watch. The Flyers made more mistakes with the puck in this game than the first. They certainly did not get outhustled or outworked, but it looked like they were thinking too hard at certain times. Can they rebound and take Game 3 in front of the home crowd? Sure, if they play more like they did in Game 1. For years, the New Jersey Devils have been the neighborhood bully. The Flyers have been able to get their shots in from time to time, but more times than not, the Devils have ousted the Flyers in the Big Dance. Will they scowl and curse at losing the girl to their biggest foe?
Or will they punch them in the nose, grab the girl and continue to dance?
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