Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Flyers, Canucks should be subdued in aftermath of Game 7 victories

by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor

Winning a seventh and deciding playoff game is always a cause for celebration.

But in the case of the Philadelphia Flyers and Vancouver Canucks today, it should be more a flash of excitement followed by a long exhale and a quick look over the shoulder before sitting down to contemplate all that's happened in the last two weeks.

Both teams faced the burden of expectations: the Flyers as the defending Eastern Conference champions and the Canucks as the Presidents' Trophy winners. Both passed their tests as they will be playing more playoff hockey, but the manner in which they advanced should give both clubs pause.

In South Philadelphia, the home team faced the spectres of a goaltending controversy at its own end, the shadow of an Olympic silver medalist at the other, the pressure of not losing a third home game in the series, and the looming disappointment of bowing out in the first round after a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals 11 months ago.

But it was the Sabres goaltender who displayed the first crack, and a river of Orange Crush began to flow through until four gaping holes emerged. It was a classic Flyers do-or-die win, one that harkened back to earlier eras where drama and the opposition were shunted aside by hard work and application of talent.

Nonetheless, if Brian Boucher showed the first signs of wear instead of Ryan Miller, it might not be such a happy Wednesday in the Delaware Valley.

In downtown Vancouver, the home team stared down the barrel of possibly becoming the second team in as many seasons and just the fourth in history to waste a 3-0 series lead, and being the third top point-getter in the NHL to lose in the first round in four seasons.

When Alex Burrows finally blew a knuckler past Corey Crawford in overtime early this morning, the Canuck fans, team, and coaching staff erupted in delight. It was a celebration initially borne of the twin blessings of an OT series winner on home ice, but it was also sprung from the grim idea that some key individuals would certainly be looking for jobs if the last bounce went the other way.

Vancouver had not advanced past the second round two years running, thanks to the stubborn defending champion Blackhawks, and came within a hair's breadth of a franchise-altering upheaval with a third straight defeat.

So now, the Flyers await their next round opponent and the Canucks know they will face yet another test in the upstart Nashville Predators. They should be taking the news with a wipe of the brow, instead of boldly vowing not to care who they will take on next.

Only once in the past 20 years has a team won a Stanley Cup after taking seven games to advance past the first round: the 1992 Pittsburgh Penguins. After going down 1-3 to Washington, the Pens took three straight. They went down 1-2 to the Rangers then won three in a row before sweeping Boston and Chicago to win it all.

And just because the first hurdle was cleared, doesn't mean the issues tht dogged both teams are anywhere close to being answered.

My esteemed colleague and managing editor ultimately placed the blame for the goalie roulette of the last two weeks on Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette, but again, the lack of a serious Number One netminder falls on the side of management. Laviolette simply did the best he could with the hand he was dealt, and when mistakes were made, it was like the razor-thin margin between coming up with a straight flush and losing after raising twice with a 2-3-4-6 when no five is on the river.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Vancouver head coach Alain Vigneault chose to start backup Cory Schneider in Game 6 at Chicago on a gut feeling and his play brought his club no closer to finishing the series -- but neither did Roberto Luongo, who gave up the deciding OT score to follow up two previous games of poor play. Luongo will get the credit for the Game 7 win after allowing one goal, but let's not forget he allowed the tying score with less than two minutes left in regulation.

No matter what, the successes and failures are amplified this time of year and the fingers pointed in the direction of those in charge get longer and sharper. But Laviolette and Vigneault find themselves in a rare spot, under fire after actually winning.

It appears that Boucher is the man for the duration, but how long will it really last? And the fact that Luongo ended up the "winner" in the Chicago series does little to elevate a reputation for less-than-stellar play in the postseason.

And what of Flyers captain Mike Richards, held without a goal? Or the Sedin twins, who were total non-factors over the final four contests? Will Jeff Carter be able to return from an MCL sprain in the next round? Can Ryan Kesler capture some of his regular-season magic (41 goals) and step in when no one else can?

These are not questions that teams collectively can answer with the athlete's confidence, puffing out chests in defiance when a lowly scribe dares to ask. To rip off a song from Asia, only time will tell if and when and how these pressing issues play out.

And for the Flyers and Canucks, that time should begin with quiet recognition that they just narrowly escaped a worse fate.

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