The Buffalo Sabres have clearly been one of the more resilient teams in the NHL in the second half of the season and into the playoffs, but the Philadelphia Flyers are pushing that resiliency as far as it can go.
The Flyers own ability to come-from-behind, even as their carousel of goalies gets increasingly complicated, has landed the teams in a Game Seven showdown on Tuesday night back in Philadelphia.
Seventh-seeded Buffalo, which powered back into playoff contention thanks to one of the NHL’s best records since the New Year, let a 3-1 lead evaporate yesterday in a Game Six in which it could have closed out the series at home in front of a raucous crowd and packed house.
Ville Leino ended Game Six 4:43 into overtime, as this time the Flyers were successful in finishing off a second consecutive miraculous comeback against the Sabres. Buffalo had taken a 3-2 series lead the game before in Philadelphia, winning 4-3 in overtime after blowing a three-goal first period lead.
While second-seeded Philadelphia may be the deeper and more talented team, it’s taken a tremendous effort by the Flyers to force a deciding game in the best-of-seven series against the underdog Sabres.
"Coming back from two and three goals in the National Hockey League is not an easy thing to do," Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette said after the game. "It’s a difficult thing to do; most of the time you cave. When you have to do it in back-to-back games, it becomes extraordinary. I can’t tell you how impressed I am with the resiliency, not just today but because we had to do it two days in a row. The last game didn’t go our way, but today it did. We don’t catch a break last game but today we did and because of it we’re still playing."
Philadelphia has now latched on to the role the Sabres played so well in the late season of the team beating the odds. The Flyers have started three different goalies in the six games and will go back to Brian Boucher in the deciding game after he replaced Michael Leighton following the first period of Game Six. Boucher went on to stop 24 of 25 shots to earn the win in the overtime affair.
Instead of folding, the Flyers have wound up using the switches in net as a rallying cry of sorts. Philadelphia has changed goalies in three of the six games, all while trailing, and come back to win two of those games.
Boucher saw his first action in the series after the Flyers’ Game One starter, Sergei Bobrovsky, was lifted in the first period of the second game. After starts in Games’ Three and Four, Boucher was replaced by Leighton in the Flyers’ overtime loss in Game Five.
The Sabres were supposed to have the clear advantage in goal with Vezina Trophy winner Ryan Miller, but the Flyers peppered Buffalo’s netminder with 49 shots.
Miller, who has already carried the Sabres to a pair of shutout victories in the series, was also the victim of some untimely sloppy play as a group of deep Philadelphia forwards never stopped breathing down the Sabres’ neck. No lead was safe for the Sabres.
Scott Hartnell, a thorn in Buffalo’s side during the series with his physical play, netted the game-tying goal with just over nine minutes remaining in the third period of Game Six. The Sabres had regained the lead on a Nathan Gerbe goal with 3:51 left in the second period. The game was evened at three apiece earlier in the period after Daniel Briere’s second tally of the game and a goal from James van Riemsdyk.
Thomas Vanek scored twice and Rob Neidermayer notched the game’s opening goal just 2:13 into the opening period to help stake the Sabres to an early 3-1 lead.
Buffalo took the difficult rout to get to the playoffs, so Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff was not surprised they’ll have to do the same to get by the first round series.
"We’ll give it everything we’ve got to win the next one," Ruff said. "We haven’t done it the easy way all year and that will have to continue."
It won’t get any easier in Philadelphia for a Game Seven in which the Sabres will play without its top centerman Tim Connelly, a game after losing right winger Jason Pominville, one of the team’s top scorers and penalty killers so far in the series.
A Mike Richards’ hit from behind sending Connelly, a player with a history of concussions, head first into the boards resulted in the center leaving the game in the second period. Richards was given only a two minute minor penalty for boarding.
After the game, Ruff called the hit a lack of respect for another player on the ice, while Miller said if Richards had previously referred to what the Sabres were getting away with as murder, the hit he put on Connelly was "mass murder."
"For being short-handed, our battle was there until the bitter end," said Ruff, who surprised the media after the game by announcing center Derek Roy, who has missed the past four months with a quad injury will return for Game Seven. "This team is going to battle until the bitter end. We’ve won two games in the their building and now we’re going to have to win one more there."
"We’ve come back and come back and that fourth goal (by the Sabres) was enough to send our team home," Laviolette said. "You come back, just to get a tough deflection on a goal to go down 4-3. How many times can you do that and come back again, but we did. I got fired up just watching."
While the Sabres wanted no part of a Game Seven going into Easter Sunday’s contest, they’ve got to believe they can take advantage of yet another opportunity to show their resilience this season.
"We got one game for everything," Ruff said.
Only question is can they be more resilient than the Flyers?