How many times have the Philadelphia Flyers been down and out this season? In December they were 29th in the league and had lost both of their roster goalies to injuries. They hired a new coach no one wanted, picked up a goalie that went through waivers twice, and just tried to be competitive from there.
The team fought injuries all season long and ended up facing a "do or die" scenario in their final game of the season against Henrik Lundqvist and the New York Rangers. Quite simply, they needed two points in order to move on to the playoffs.
Down 1-0 in the third period, they eventually tied the score sending the game into overtime. After a scoreless overtime, they won a 2-1 shootout victory and survived to fight another day. That's right, they made it to the Stanley Cup Finals in effect, because of a season ending shootout victory. (Don't let anyone tell you that shootouts are not important.)
Many people picked their opening round opponent, the New Jersey Devils, to be favorites coming out of the East. But they easily knocked out the favored Devils in four out of five games.
Their next opponent, the Boston Bruins, seemed to be playing well and were also the favorites in their next series matchup. But after falling behind in the series 3-0, the Flyers did the impossible and won the next four games in a row to accomplish something that only two other teams in NHL history have done, erase a 3-0 deficit to win a playoff series. It's something that had not happened in 35 years. (Convinced that something special might be going on here yet?)
Once again, the Flyers were underdogs in the next round against a red hot Montreal team who not only had knocked off the President's Trophy winning Washington Capitals, they eliminated the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins as well. But for the first time in team history, unlikely hero Michael Leighton put up three shutouts against the Habs and led his team to another series win as they took four out of five games from the favorites.
Now the Flyers are underdogs again, this time against a very talented Chicago team which is loaded with skill, speed, talent, and depth. But Stanley Cup Championships are won with heart and I would not count out the Philadelphia Flyers.
By all accounts, the Flyers should not be here. By all accounts, Michael Leighton should not be in contention for a Conn Smythe Trophy. But logic sometimes takes a backseat in the playoffs.
How strange has the journey been for Leighton? Originally drafted by his next opponent, the Chicago Blackhawks, he was then traded to Buffalo, signed by Anaheim, picked up on waivers by Nashville, picked up on waivers by Philadelphia, picked up on waivers by Montreal, signed by the Hurricanes, and eventually picked up on re-entry waivers one more time by the Flyers.
A one time fixture in the AHL, this guy has been on waivers more often than Antti Niemi has shaved. Leighton's unlikely story gives a message to every AHL journeyman or waiver wire castoff: Never give up! Anything is possible.
The Flyers are 6-1 with Leighton in net in these playoffs. If you take into account his 16-5-2 record with them during the regular season, they are 22-6-2. Leighton leads all goalies this postseason with his three shutouts.
Most importantly, the goalie has a team clicking on all cylinders in front of him. Danny Briere and Mike Richards are playing at the top of their games. Jeff Carter and Simon Gagne seem to have recovered from previous injuries and are contributing. Youngsters Claude Giroux, James van Riemsdyk, and Ville Leino are forces to be reckoned with. Then you have a tough as nails defense led by Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen, both of whom also capable of chipping in on offense. These guys are not pushovers.
How thin is the line between success and failure, between champions and also-rans in the NHL? As thin as a shootout goal in the final game of the regular season. I'll take the Flyers in six.