TWO THUMBS UP
n Wayne Simmonds with the tricked-out effort.
n Steve Mason was magical.
TWO THUMBS DOWN
n Rick Nash makes too much money to play like that.
n Henrik Lundqvist never saw Period No. 3.
PHILADELPHIA — It was the spring, and it was hockey, and the Flyers were three losses into a playoff series Tuesday. Craig Berube, for one, was not about to accept the usual.
He’d been aware of the situation since 1986, as a player, as an observer from afar, as the head coach since the third game of this season. And he’d seen it all. Mostly, though, he’d seen too many emotionless exits.
The Flyers have specialized in that ever since ever since they began to stalk their third Stanley Cup in the middle 1970s. Every spring, all but one NHL team will be eliminated. But few can do it like the Flyers, who have been ousted in everything from blue-line goals, to goals that the fans and the goaltender never see, to defeats so lacking in urgency that the head coach could charge them with being in a “choking situation” and get away with it.
Send the Flyers into an elimination game, and chances are their captain will be concussed, their goaltender will be pulled, their chairman will blame the refs or the fans will boo the general manager — all on the same night, if necessary.
So what were the signs Tuesday that it would be any different in Game 6 of a first-round series against the New York Rangers? Weren’t the Flyers thoroughly outperformed a couple of days earlier in Madison Square Garden? Hadn’t they been sloppy in their end, too slow to make the proper pass, too inconsistent in everything?
Weren’t they ready to hustle over to Voorhees in a couple of days, rip the coach a little bit, then promise to return in August and try it all again?
Or was it possible to detect something different this time?
“It’s hard,” Berube was saying, trying to gauge the pregame mood. “It’s real hard. I think the guys are focused. I haven’t gone into the locker room — or to practice or anything else — and said, ‘My team’s not focused.’, or, ‘Our team is focused and is ready to play.’
“It’s a hard thing to pick out.”
So he wouldn’t wait for it. Instead, he would act. And because he did, the Flyers didn’t just win Game 6, 5-2, they so dominated it that it will be the Rangers could themselves be shaken as the series reaches Game 7 Wednesday in the Garden.
Berube changed his defense, replacing Hal Gill and activating Erik Gustafsson. And Gustafsson would score a goal. He changed his lines, trying Claude Giroux with Michael Raffl, and later with Vinny Lecavalier. Giroux scored for the second consecutive game. After auditioning Brayden Schenn on the top line in Game 5, Tuesday he reunited him with Wayne Simmonds, who would score a hat trick.
Suddenly, everything Berube tried was working. But nothing worked more than his No. 1 demand: Don’t let the season end, not in that familiar manner.
“We need to get people in the battle more,” he said. “I think we’ve made it too easy on the Rangers. You’ve got to skate and you’ve got to be more aggressive. They are a fast team, and I think we are worried about their speed a little too much.”
Early Tuesday, the Flyers should have been more concerned with their play than what the Rangers were up to, turning the puck over nine times in the first period. But in the leading indicator that there was something different about them this spring, there they were, threatened by elimination … and with a goaltender able to dominate.
Whether by covering the goal line with his pads, snapping pucks out of the sky with his glove, denying rebounds or cutting down angles, Steve Mason was giving the Flyers the change-the-series-level goaltender they had historically lacked.
Aware of that, they were able to breathe. When they were, they were able to execute. When they did, they were able to win.
So it’s on to Game 7, the Flyers still lugging around that franchise history. But they will go into the Garden with the hotter goaltender, fresh line combinations and a chance to see Round 2.
They are still facing elimination. It just seems different this spring.