by Kevin Franklin
In the immortal words of former Flyers backup goalie, Bobby Taylor: “Whoddathunkit?”
For those of you just rotating back to whatever shade of reality that currently haunts your existence, the Philadelphia Flyers are moving on to the the second round of the playoffs. Their opponent? The feckless Boston Bruins. No, not the Pittsburgh Penguins. That possibility is at least one series away. Not the Washington Capitals. They joined the Ottawa Senators in being the two national capitals (pun firmly intended) being rubbed out as soon as the opening credits rolled. Mexico City missed the playoffs. The difference being the Capitals were hailed – and rightly so – as a gate-crashing, dowager-insulting, eat-all-the-fruit-and-throw-away-the-rind juggernaut. Not the Buffalo Sabres. The Bruins roughed them up and took what is probably the best goalie, Ryan Miller, out of the picture. Not the Devils, of course, because the Flyers bloodied their noses almost effortlessly. It was spooky in its efficiency.
So, what we have here are two old rivals whose last playoff match up was…32 years ago? Maybe it’s me, but isn’t there a seemingly free-standing hatred of Boston? I’m not talking about the genetic disdain for the Celtics, the “enough already” overexposure of the Red Sox or the envious hand wringing over the gold standard Patriots. The last time these two teams met in the playoffs, Ray Bourque was still in the Quebec Junior League. Funny how one of the longest tenured players in NHL history never faced the Flyers in the playoffs. We never truly had a chance to hate him. Good on ya, Ray. Good on ya.
We all know the hatred of the Bruins stretches back to the early days of the franchise when Boston would hang loogies on the faces of the Flyers, especially at the Garden. When they faced off in the 1974 Stanley Cup Finals, the Big Bad Bruins were leg-sweeped by the Broad Street Bullies in a match up of the two best team nicknames in the sport. There was Phil Esposito, Ken Hodge, Carol Vadnais, Wayne Cashman, Johnny Bucyk and of course, arguably the best player in the history of the league, Bobby Orr (apologies, Wayne Gretzky fans).
1978, however, was a different kettle of fish. Gone were Orr, Esposito, Hodge and Vadnais. Cashman was still there and Bucyk was celebrating his 75th birthday with a five-goal season. The Bruins set an NHL record with 11 – count ’em – 11 20-goal scorers. They were so good, their two leading hatchet men, Stan Jonathan and John Wensink, combined for 43 goals. Defenseman Brad Park, obtained in a trade from the Rangers along with Jean Ratelle, for Esposito, Vadnais and Hodge, scored 22 goals and 79 points. For those who are not familiar, it could be debated that Brad Park was the second best defenseman in the NHL in the 1970s. If not for Orr, he would have had a garage-full of Norris trophies. The team was led by that shaggy-haired Irishman, Terry O’Reilly, a pugilistic monster on skates who scored 90 points and was named a Second Team All-Star right winger at season’s end. The Bruins won the series, 4 games to 1 and earned the right to be humiliated by the Montreal Canadiens in the Finals.
Fast forward to today, and it is because of those same Canadiens that the Flyers and Bruins will meet in the second round of these playoffs. This time, the Bruins come armed with one – yes ONE – player who scored 20 goals, the inimitably-named Marco Sturm (22). Of course Sturm had no goals or assists in the first round, so up is down and down is up. They are led by the hulking Czechoslovakian monolith, defenseman Zdeno Chara, and puck wizard Marc Savard, who will be returning after his brain was fried by a Matt Cooke hit in March. In net, they have rookie Tuukka Rask, whose first name sounds like a Hawaiian hash pipe, but has performed admirably thus far.
The Flyers blasted past New Jersey, but it was almost a Pyrrhic victory, as orange and black bodies were dropping all over the ice. Simon Gagne, Jeff Carter and Ian Laperriere were all victims of unfortunate slap shots. It might be easier to replace Gagne’s and Carter’s offense than it will to replace Laperriere’s storm-the-machine-gun-nest testicular fortitude, and that’s not taking anything away from the former two. Laperriere took a similar slap shot to the face earlier in the year – and returned later that game! If that would have been the only game he played in a Flyers uniform, we’d be boring our grandchildren 40 years from now about that tough sonuvabitch by saying, “THAT’S how you play hockey!” As it is, it is being reported he is gone for the remainder of the playoffs, but no one would be surprised to see his #14 jersey on the ice before the lights go out this year.
The key to this series will be the Flyers reminding the Bruins that Boston only scored 196 goals this year, whereas that 1977-78 team scored 333 (in two fewer games, no less). Constant pressure, hard checking and closing off the lanes in the defensive zone piloted the Flyers past the Devils and the same should work against the Bruins, but this is the playoffs and funny things happen. After all, Boston DID finish higher than the Flyers in the regular season, so they’re not about to read the stat sheets and mail in their RSVP regrets. In fact, the Bruins play a game more similar to the Flyers than any other in the Eastern Conference, and that includes the Devils. The difference here might just be Brian Boucher and his ability to perform as he did in the first round. Look for Chris Pronger to have a strong series and for every reporter to ask him questions about his counterpart, Chara, much to his disdain. Another key for the Flyers will be Claude Giroux, who had a good first series and will be seeing more key minutes with the injuries. Ville Laino gets a chance to throw a big “told you so” into coach Peter Laviolette’s face and captain Mike Richards has an opportunity to begin cementing his name onto the list of clutch playoff performers if he carries his performance into this round.
A few weeks ago, the Flyers were not so much in a free fall as they were walking on marbles. Thousands of televisions were being snapped off in late March and early April in the third periods as the air was filled with “I can’t watch this team go through this again,” when chance after chance of locking up a playoff spot were dropped like tabs of acid at Burning Man. Then , the improbable; in the last game of the regular season, the Flyers beat out the New York Rangers for the final playoff spot – in a shoot out, no less – and Philadelphia found itself in a position a couple of weeks later to avenge an ouster that occurred during the Jimmy Carter administration when Saturday Night Live was still funny and people were up in arms about gas being 65 cents a gallon. It was a lifetime ago, for many fans, and a chance to get even for a team many of its fans never thought would even make it to the post season.
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