The Philadelphia Flyers are going to the Stanley Cup.
Led by an inspired three-point night from captain Mike Richards and two goals from Jeff Carter, the Flyers defeated the Montreal Canadiens, 4-2, in game 5 Monday night at the Wachovia Center to take the Eastern Conference Finals series 4-1.
“It’s huge,” said Claude Giroux, who finished with an assist. “We didn’t want to go back to Montreal, we wanted to end the series right here.”
The Flyers advance to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1997 and will Chicago Blackhawks with game 1 starting on Saturday at 8 PM on NBC.
“It’s taken a lot of hard work,” said Flyers defenseman Braydon Coburn. “Coming from squeaking in the playoffs to this point, it’s great. We’ve gone through some tough times, but when it came down to it, we had a lot of confidence and a lot of swagger.”
Although Chicago will be the odd-on favorite in the finals, don’t count the Flyers out.
“I don’t consider us underdogs,” said Richards, who leads team post-season scoring with 20 points. “I know what this group is capable of. Overall, we have a similar team with a lot of depth and good defense.
“When the chips have been down it seems like we get better. We are fully confident. I don’t want to say destiny or anything but we feel like we have a good chance and want to lay it all out there.”
After a disastrous start to the contest which had Montreal’s Brian Gionta shed his coverage and score five-hole on Michael Leighton just 59 seconds into the game, the Flyers needed to regroup. And getting the team’s wind back under its sails was none other than Richards.
Three minutes after giving up the opening goal, Richards found himself racing lumbering Montreal defenseman Roman Hamrlik to a slowly rolling puck back into the Canadiens’ zone at the tail end of a penalty kill. Oddly, Jaroslav Halak, with no confidence in Hamrlik’s ability to beat anyone in a footrace, decided to skate out and try to poke the puck away. He collided violently with his teammate and Richards ended up alone just outside the crease with the puck just sitting there. Richards got to his skates and calmly put the puck in the net, sending the home crowd into a frenzy and changing the complexion of the game.
“I was actually going to go off (the ice) but the puck took a soft bounce,” said the captain. “I just wanted to avoid the goalie stick laying there and put it in.”
With the effort required, that goal revitalized the team.
“We came out flat and one of our leaders goes out there and has a shift like that, it got the guys going,” said Giroux. “It was the turning point of the game.”
The Flyers waited until the three minutes into the second period to nab the next two goals. Flyers forward Arron Asham earned his third of the playoffs when he received a beautiful pass from Matt Carle, behind the Montreal defense, put on a backhand to forehand move on Halak to make it 2-1. Carter made it 3-1 just over a minute later when he received a perfect tick-tac-toe behind-the-net pass from Kimmo Timonen and Mike Richards.
“It’s been a long year and a lot of things have happened,” said Carter. “You learn from those, it builds character. We have a group of guys in that room that whatever happens, they never give up. It’s a pretty amazing thing to be a part of.”
Montreal’s Scott Gomez capitalized with 13 minutes left in the third period to cut the Flyers lead to one. But without panic, the captain came up big one more time. Using brute strength to cause a turnover deep in the Canadiens’ zone, Richards forced the puck loose and it ended up on the stick of Carter, who easily scored the empty net goal to secure the victory.
“He’s been leading us all playoffs,” said Coburn said of Richards. “Mikey is a heart and soul guy.”
On presentation of the Prince of Wales Trophy as the Eastern Conference champions immediately following the victory, Richards opted, unlike his counterpart Jonathan Toews in Chicago, to grab the conference hardware and take it immediately back to the locker room. The crowd gasped as he put his hands on it.
“My first instinct was to grab it,” said Richards honestly. “It obviously took us a lot to get here. It’s not the trophy that we want but we haven’t done anything conventional to this point, might as well go against the grain.”
It’s a long-time hockey superstition that players don’t touch the conference award due to the jinxing effect it has on the real prize. However, Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby handled the trophy in 2009 and his team went on to win the Stanley Cup, debunking the jinx.
“I was for it,” said Simon Gagne. “Who knows. We had the trophy in the locker room and a lot of people had a chance to see it. It was the right thing to do.”