Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Great Sporting Comebacks: Philadelphia Flyers vs Boston Bruins - Guest Post By Stefan Preiml

This was sent into us by one of our listeners, Stefan Preiml. We often overlook the sports on the other side of The Atlantic so hopefully this will help redress the balance a little. This is to do with the 2009 Stanley Cup 2nd round series between the Philadephia Flyers and the Boston Bruins.

By Stefan Preiml

In sports like hockey, basketball or baseball (like in cricket), multi-layered narratives can emerge quickly throughout such a playoff series. The following is a pretty good example in my opinion.

I must confess that I am a Flyers fan and I may drift a bit into a rather Flyers- centric view on this series.

I should probably start with a bit of history. The Flyers and Bruins have a rather strange relationship. The Flyers were founded because the then-treasurer of the Philadelphia Eagles football team, Ed Snider, was once at Boston for a business meeting and was at a basketball game there. When he left the arena he asked his business partner who was with him at the game about the line at the ticket counter. He was told it was for the Bruins game the next day and people were lining up despite the team being in last place. Snider who had only seen hockey once before, already had the idea that the city of Philadelphia would take a liking to the sport as well if set up correctly. Thus in the mid 60s when the NHL was looking to expand, Snider put in a bid for a team which he eventually won, thus the Flyers were born.

Though they had early success, the Flyers were defeated in the first round of the playoffs in each of the first two seasons by another expansion team, the St. Louis Blues, basically getting physically dominated. This lead to Snider giving their general manager the message to draft bigger and stronger players so this may never happen again. This would lead to the Flyers getting the moniker of the "Broad Street Bullies", as they were now the tough team, pushing the other teams around, which did not often sit well with the league and hockey purists. Over-physical play and fights often broke out. It became what the Flyers were known and widely feared for, a stigma that still is with the team today. However, they definitely also had talent with Hall of Fame players like Bobby Clarke, Bernie Parent and Bill Barber on the team. This had also parallels with the "Big Bad Bruins" as they were often called, who were at the time lead by Phil Esposito and Bobby Orr, still thought to be the best defenceman to ever lace up skates by many. A clash between the teams was inevitable.

That clash would come about in the 1974 Stanley Cup Finals. The Flyers defeated the Bruins in their very first visit to Boston in 1967, but were unable to do it again up until that series. This could be crucial with the Bruins having home ice advantage. That is until Bobby Clarke won game 2 of the series in overtime. The Flyers were able to win the series in 6 games after that to capture the first Stanley Cup of a team by the 1967 expansion.

The rivalry would continue in 1976 when the Flyers and Bruins played again, this time in the Semi-Finals, the Flyers trying to retain the Stanley Cup after winning it again in '75. The Flyers would again triumph 4-1, but were swept by the Montreal Canadiens in the finals in four games. Two more contests between the Flyers and Bruins followed in '77 and '78, both won by the Bruins by a count of 4-0 and 4-1 respectively, but the Bruins were not able to capitalize of those wins as in both years they were beaten in the Finals to the Canadiens. After that the rivalry became dormant, with the star players leaving the clubs or retiring. However, a final historic moment would happen with the Flyers and Bruins in December of 1979 when the Flyers defeated Bruins to set a new record for an unbeaten streak in North American professional sports at 29 games. The Flyers would eventually be able to push that mark to 35. Coincidentally, Bobby Clarke scored his 900th career point that night as well.

Flash forward to the summer of 2009. The Flyers were chosen, largely by a push from the TV station NBC as the Flyers garner a large TV audience, as the opponents for the Boston Bruins at the 2010 Winter Classic. The Winter Classic is one of the NHL's flagship events where a regular season game is played outdoors, with a hockey rink being set up either in a baseball park or a football stadium. The Bruins were chosen as the home team to access the historic baseball venue of Fenway Park, usually home to the Boston Red Sox. The NHL and NBC also tried to capitalize on the classic rivalry between the teams from back in the 70s. The game itself on January 1st was rather unremarkable as it quickly became a defensive struggle. The very first fight in an outdoor game happened between Dan Carcillo and Shawn Thornton five minutes into the game and the Flyers were able to take a lead early in the 2nd period which they were able to hold on until three minutes before the end when Boston tied it 1-1. This pushed the game into overtime where the Bruins were able to eke out a victory, though
many fans dispute the winning goal as the Bruins had too many men on the ice.

As the season went on and both teams struggled. The Flyers had inconsistent scoring and a series of injuries to their goaltenders, though strangely enough every goaltender playing behind the strong defense around star blue-liner Chris Pronger played rather well. The Bruins on the other hand were just a very low scoring team, finishing last in that department league-wide, but they also saw the emergence of finish rookie goaltender Tuukka Rask. But a severe blow came to the Bruins as they lost their first line center - in other words their most dangerous offensive weapon - Marc Savard in a blindsided hit to the head. He was thought to be out for the season. Both teams would barely make it into the playoffs as the 6th (Bruins) and 7th seed respectively. For the Flyers it was an even closer call as they had to win the very last game of their season against the New York Rangers, which they barely managed with a shootout win. The Bruins themselves also managed to make the playoffs largely on the back of shootout wins, a total of ten they amassed in the regular season giving them 10 extra points.

In the playoffs the Flyers drew their old rival, the New Jersey Devils, which they had dominated all season long, winning 5 of the 6 games the teams played. The playoff series wasn't much different with the Flyers winning it 4-1. However, the Flyers suffered key injuries. Their best goalscorer in the regular season, Jeff Carter, suffered a broken foot and franchise left-winger Simon Gagne, suffered a broken toe, both in game 4. In game 5 they also lost Ian Laperriere who blocked a shot with is face, suffering a brain contusion. Though Laperriere is not a very offensive threat, he is often regarded as the heart of that team and also a high quality penalty killer (a player who is responsible to keep the other team from scoring when the own team is shorthanded because of a penalty). The Bruins had it a bit easier, defeating the Buffalo Sabres, allowing not a single power play goal by the team from upstate New York, in a 4-2 series victory.


Since the 8th seeded Montreal Canadiens also managed to knock off the heavily favored Washington Capitals in a tremendous upset, this would create the matchup from the Winter Classic in the playoffs. The Bruins received a big boost before the series started, as Marc Savard returned to the line-up. The first game was a struggle back and forth with both goalies showing extraordinary play at times, despite them being high scoring games. The Flyers played from behind all game long until high-paid center Danny Briere steamrolled down the ice three minutes before the end, inseparable from the puck, to tie it up. This would however only anger the Bruins who came out with guns blazing in overtime and though Flyers goalie Brian Boucher stood on his head, he did not get enough support from his teammates and could not stop the puck when Savard made his impact felt with the Overtime winner in a 5-4 decision.


Game 2 was rather similar. The Bruins played with a lead all game long until Briere tied it, this time with less than a minute in the 2nd period though for a score of 2-2. This score would persist for almost the entire 3rd, but a defensive error leading to a Bruins goal with less than 3 minutes to go would prove deadly to the Flyers. The only other thing about that game was that a scrum between Savard and Flyers
'pest' - a player who is known to deliberately annoy the other team - Dan Carcillo (resulting in Carcillo alleging to have been bitten).


In game 3 the Flyers were finally able to achieve a lead. Unfortunately, that goal early in the game would be their only one, the lead was less than 2 minutes in duration, and a very, very sloppy 3rd period by the Flyers would give the Bruins a 4-1 victory and a 3-0 lead in the series, a classic stranglehold. That victory came with a price for the Bruins though, paid when David Krejci was absolutely leveled by Flyers captain Mike Richards on the play that lead to the 3-1 Bruins goal. The hit broke Krejci's wrist and took him out of the line-up.


In a press conference before the 4th game, Bruins head coach Claude Julien was asked if the team was focusing on a sweep, to which he replied that the word "sweep" is taboo. However, the only teams to ever come back after a 3-0 deficit before were the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1942, and the New York Islanders in 1975. The only team from
Baseball or Basketball that came back after such a deficit were the Boston Red Sox in 2004.

Game 4 turned out to be very similar to game 1, only with reversed roles. This time the Flyers were the ones getting a boost as Simon Gagne returned to the line-up. Though they give up the first goal again, the Flyers could mount a 3-1 lead, which then melted away on two strange goals that have to be viewed to be believed. Rookie forward Ville Leino, who was the beneficiary of Jeff Carter's absence, retook the lead only to see the Bruins tie again with less than a minute to go. Overtime came, and the returned Gagne mirrored the heroics of Marc Savard in Game 1, scoring the 5-4 overtime winner having the Flyers survive to fight another day.


In Game 5 the Bruins confidence was clearly rattled by the game that got away from them. They gave up a goal less than 7 minutes into the match, again to Leino, and the Flyers never looked back taking a 4-0 victory. That shutout was split however, as another injury put more burden on the Flyers already bizarre goaltending situation. The Flyers had used 6 different goalies in the regular season, which is more than
some teams use in a decade. One of them was Michael Leighton which they had picked up on waivers, which essentially means that his previous team did not want him anymore and he was up for grabs to whoever asks for him first. His abysmal stats up to the point had many teams recoil and only the Flyers took him as they were in dire straits
with their starting goaltender, Ray Emery, absent with hip problems. Leighton however played remarkably well behind the Flyers defence but suffered a high-ankle sprain in March, sidelining him right up to this game. The goalie up to that point was Brian Boucher but when a Flyers defenceman and a Bruins forward both fell on him during the game, he suffered stretched ligaments in both knees.


His replacement however continued his heroics in game 6. Leighton shut out the Bruins for 59 minutes. By the time the Bruins finally were able to punch one past him, the Flyers already had a two goal lead which they were able to push over the finish line for a 2-1 win.


So now we have a game 7, with the Flyers on the verge of a historic comeback, and the Bruins eager to finally finish it off and avoid becoming a laughing stock. The Bruins displayed more desire to achieve their goal early on taking a 3-0 lead in the first 15 minutes of the game with Michael Ryder and Milan Lucic doing the honours, Lucic
scoring twice. This made Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette use up his only time-out in attempt to rally his troops once more. And it worked as Flyers Rookie forward James van Riemsdyk, (JVR for short) scored a goal that bounced of the stick of a defenseman, breaking it, and just sneaking under Bruins goalie Rask. JVR had won rookie of the month in November, but hit a scoring drought since, and this was his
first goal in the playoffs as well. Scott Hartnell and Danny Briere both scored in the 2nd period tying the game up at 3-3 setting up a deciding 3rd period. This was also quite bizarre because the first two Boston goals came on the power play due to penalties by Hartnell and Briere respectively.

In between those two goals Laviolette was interviewed by the TV crew about what he said to his players when he took the time-out and in the locker room in between periods. His response was to the extent that he reminded the players of what this opportunity was and remarked nonchalantly to the interviewer that "we're gonna win this". In the 3rd period, Simon Gagne proved to be a hero again. When the Bruins
took a penalty for too many men on the ice due to a miscued change of players, Gagne potted a power play goal. This goal would eventually become the game winner. The Flyers won the game 4-3 after being down 3-0 and the Flyers won the series 4-3 after being down 3-0. A comeback in a comeback and one for the ages.

As remarked earlier, only two other NHL teams ever managed to do that feat. The Leafs in '42 won the Stanley Cup with said comeback. The Islanders in '75 were defeated in the next round by the Flyers on their way to their title defense. In other words, a team that accomplishes this feat either wins the championship, or must be beaten
to win the championship. The same is true in this case. In the next round the Flyers played the Canadiens, who themselves managed another unbelievable upset as they defeated the defending champions Pittsburgh Penguins in 7 games. The Flyers however made short work of the Canadiens, beating them 4-1 in the series with 3 of the 4 wins coming by shutout.

The Flyers would go on to play in the Stanley Cup Finals against the Chicago Blackhawks. Though disputed to be a true threat to the team from the Windy City, the Flyers showed determination again as they came back from a 2-0 hole in the series to tie it back up at 2-2 in their home games. This was unfortunately the last hurray of that team as the Blackhawks won the next two to take the title.

Here's a list of YouTube videos relevant to this, though they do not
show the full narrative:
Winter Classic highlights:
The hit on Marc Savard that knocked him out until the series:
Highlights from the Flyers last game of the season:
Laperriere blocks one with his face:
Game 1 highlights:
Game 2 highlights:
Game 3 highlights:
Game 4 highlights:
Game 5 highlights:
Game 6 highlights:
Game 7 highlights:
And finally, a fan-made montage video trying to comprise the entire
series into 10 minutes:

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