Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Zherdev, Boucher seize given opportunity

By Michael Rushton

Philadelphia - In Robert Frost's famous poem "The Road Not Taken," the work's subject is presented a choice of two paths in which to take; one seemingly more traveled and another that in Frost's words "was grassy and wanted wear."

It is a classic piece of literature that both Flyers forward Nikolai Zherdev and goaltender Brian Boucher can relate to.

Owner of 115 career regular-season goals, Zherdev appeared in 56 games this season as he often found himself a healthy scratch by head coach Peter Laviolette as his reputation for questionable work ethic and defensive play appeared to have followed him to the City of Brotherly Love.

But to Zherdev's credit, he never quit, not even when he was placed on waivers in late February and went unclaimed despite having scored 15 goals at the time. He also didn't pack it in when he was scratched for the first two games of the Flyers' opening-round matchup with the Buffalo Sabres.

The 26-year-old finally found his way into the lineup for Monday's Game 3 because of an upper body injury suffered by forward Andreas Nodl, owner of 103 fewer NHL goals than Zherdev, the previous game. The winger wasted little time in having an impact, netting the game-winning goal in Philadelphia's 4-2 victory that gave the club a series lead over Buffalo heading into a Game 4 showdown on Wednesday.

Zherdev could have sulked in the shadows as he finished out his one-year contract signed with Philadelphia prior to this season. To his credit, he stuck with it and didn't let his situation affect himself or the team.

"His attitude has been fantastic. He's went to work and he's been working hard to stay in shape and waiting for his chance," said Flyers forward Danny Briere. "I think everybody's happy for him to score a big goal like that and put us up 2-1 in the series."

Those are big words coming from Briere, who knows a little something about adversity. The two-time All-Star was once placed on waivers by the Phoenix Coyotes.

Laviolette, the one making the decision to exclude Zherdev from the lineup at times this season, has also been impressed with his forward's attitude since being placed on waivers and praised his play on Monday.

"I think there's always two different roads you can go down at that point," the head coach said. "You can go south and maybe never get a player back or you can do what you have to do and he's worked really hard with the coaches, really hard with [team trainer and strength and conditioning coach] Jim McCrossin to keep himself in shape and improve conditioning. [He's had a] great attitude and got an opportunity tonight and made a difference."

Boucher could have been equally as frustrated with Laviolette's decision to go with rookie goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky at the start of the series despite a regular season in which the veteran went 18-10-4 with a 2.42 goals-against average and .916 save percentage in 34 games.

In fact, Laviolette's decision looked like a solid one after Bobrovsky made 24-of-25 saves in a 1-0 defeat in Game 1, but his rookie goaltender quickly came unraveled the following game by yielding three goals on his first seven shots faced over the initial 12:30 of the contest.

Enter Boucher, who made 20 saves the rest of the way in a tight 5-4 win before earning a Game 3 start. Despite facing 37 shots and six Buffalo power plays, including a pair of 5-on-3 disadvantages, the 34-year-old former first-round pick stood tall in a 4-2 victory.

"With those power plays and the opportunities that they had, he just settled things down for us," Laviolette said of Boucher. "I think that's what he did coming off the bench in his last two starts for us, he just settled things down. Like I said before, the game started and he had a calming presence about him."

Boucher's experience showed while down two men and up just a goal -- thanks to Zherdev -- approaching the halfway mark of the third period. The netminder slid across the crease to make a save, taking a puck off his mask, and Boucher said the shot knocked his strap off. With the puck still live, he calmly flipped his mask off and to the ice to draw a whistle.

The play was legal and also gave Philadelphia's penalty killers a moment of much-needed rest while Boucher got his equipment fixed.

"I just felt like it was kind of unsafe, the mask was moving around on my face," Boucher said. "I've seen other goalies flip their mask off. I didn't know what would happen, but the referee said it was the right play and it was fine."

It's plays like that, moments wrapped in a calm collectiveness, that show why Boucher can carry the Flyers deep into the playoffs. The postseason is often a time when over-looked players like Boucher and Zherdev can make a name for themselves and the former is confident in himself to do just that even if the chances come in small waves.

Boucher was the Flyers' starting goaltender in the postseason as a rookie in 1999-2000 and went 11-7 in 18 games with a 2.03 GAA. However, he wasn't a starter in the second season again until last year in his return to Philadelphia and that run ended with a knee injury suffered in Game 5 versus the Boston Bruins in the second round.

While many question Boucher's ability to lead the Flyers, the goaltender is confident in himself and that could be the most important thing working in his favor.

"I've played in the playoffs before; my rookie season, I played last year before I ended up getting hurt and I had a good season this year," he said. "I don't know. I have a belief in myself and I knew that I put a lot of work in this year to have a good season. I know there may be questions from the outside, but for myself I feel I can do that job and I'm happy to be getting a chance."

Much like the decision made at the end of Frost's poem, Zherdev and Boucher may not have taken popular paths to playoff heroics, but it is that adversity that may have made all the difference.

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