PHILADELPHIA — When it became a near certainty the Flyers were going to lose Game 3 on Wednesday night, a Philadelphia fan sitting in the stands at the Wachovia Center tied up his orange playoff towel and did what his team had basically done.
He threw it in.
The image of the lonely orange towel on the ice was fitting. It was that kind of night for Philadelphia — the Flyers came out hard, they pushed, they dominated at times … and they still went down 4-1 to the Bruins to fall behind 3-0 in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinals (click here for the full recap).
Tuukka Rask did his thing. Patrice Bergeron and Zdeno Chara did their things. Blake Wheeler, surprisingly, did something. The Bruins weathered the storm, allowed the first goal of the game and then shut the Flyers down for the final 57:28 to take a giant step toward a place that nobody in their right mind would ever think they were headed this year — the Eastern Conference finals.
“Everyone on our bench was up, giving ‘attaboys’ to whoever was on the ice,” Wheeler said. “It might not look pretty from the crowd, but that was what we needed to do. I don't know if we had more than two shots on goal and they both went in.
“We were just kind of playing a rope-a-dope and not letting them get many chances on net and they were pressing a little bit. And when that happens, you seem to be able to capitalize. So, we kept it real simple in the third and did what it took to win.”
With every shot that Rask stopped and every shot a Bruins defender blocked, the Flyers flew a little lower. The Wachovia Center was oddly quiet for a playoff game during breaks in the action in the third period. The public address system was not pumping out overly-loud tunes nor was the crowd boisterous and rabid in trying to bring their team back into the series.
It was like the just knew, absolutely knew, even when the score was 3-1 and Philadelphia took two power plays on delay-of-game calls, that the team had finally run out of hope.
“Well, we outplayed them pretty much in the first two periods. Our confidence was fine, we just couldn’t get the puck past Tuukka,” Arron Asham, who scored the Flyers only goal, said. “He made some big saves for them and blocked a lot of shots. I think we play the same way Friday night, we will be fine.”
Perhaps, but it is probably too late. Only three teams in all of American sports history have come back from 3-0 deficits in a best-of-seven series, and one of them plays baseball somewhere near Kenmore Square.
So, with the city of Philadelphia crying into their cups Wednesday night, let’s take a look at the Hat Trick from Game 3:
TUUKKA THE DEMORALIZER
Listening to Flyers coach Peter Laviolette’s post-game press conference was an exercise in reading between the lines. It sounded like the Flyers had just won the game 4-1 instead of lost it.
Laviolette was asked about whether his defensemen were being too tentative shooting the puck from the point, and if he would prefer them to just get it on the net. (Philadelphia outshot Boston 35-20 on the night.)
“It’s easy sometimes, because I do the same thing that you do, I sit on the bench and think, shoot the thing,” Laviolette said. “But, those are pretty smart players on the back end in Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen, and if they see someone in front of them, they know they can’t get it through.
“If you look at the stat sheet, I think we fired close to 80 attempts at the net to their 30. I’m with you, let’s get some action there, let’s get some heat in front of them, and look for opportunity. But, in saying, yeah, maybe we can do it more, we did close to 80 times tonight.”
OK coach, we understand you want to make it look like your team was the clearly dominant team and a couple things did not work out in your favor. But let’s not stray too far from reality here. Yes, the Flyers had a lot more chances. They were down since the sixth minute of the first period, of course they were pressing. It’s like a football team having to pass the ball because it goes down by two touchdowns in the first quarter.
But, putting together official shots on Rask and attempts that were blocked by the Bruins (more on that below), the Flyers had 56 opportunities to get the puck towards the crease. Boston, playing coach Claude Julien’s defensive scheme perfectly just about all night, had 28 such shots (20 official shots with eight attempts blocked).
“Honestly, I don’t think we gave up six or seven quality chances all game. We probably pressured over 20. We couldn’t beat their goaltender,” Laviolette said. “They played good defense, they blocked shots. They did what they had to do in their end. We could make some changes. There’s not a lot I would change in the whole game other than trying to figure out how to beat their goaltender.”
The Bruins kept the lanes open in front of Rask, and every screamer from the point or the wings found either a pad or his glove. He was machine like on the night from one side of the crease to the other in the butterfly technique. He did not always have the greatest rebound control of his career, but even when pucks came back at him when he left them around the slot got shut down.
There was one particular instance in the second when the Flyers had been crashing the net and getting great circulation around the crease. The puck ended up on the stick of Claude Giroux who took the best pure shot of the night from the faceoff dot that was calmly turned aside. As the Bruins made the exit down the ice and Giroux exited for the line change, he waved his arms and stick in the air as if to say “I just hit that a country mile. There’s no way we can catch a break.”
It was after those moments when the Flyers became deflated. Rask can have that effect on teams. Ask the Buffalo Sabres. Think of it like this: Does anybody believe that the Flyers can actually beat Rask and the Bruins four out of five games? Not bloody likely.
DOMINATING THE DESPERATION STAT
The Flyers can say whatever they want really, after the first five minutes, they showed intermittent signs of life. Those “80” opportunities? In many cases, they were hollow gestures towards the net. The Bruins know that type of frustration. Through the regular season, there were times when they would put 40 or 50 shots on net and come away with zilch and lose the game. A lot of it was the bounces were not going there way (and they have been in the playoffs) and others were at the chest of the goaltender or they did not take the time to get big bodies in front of the net. Either way, 56 opportunities is not an outrageous sum for an NHL game, even though they did double up on the Bruins.
“It kind of looked like us for a majority of the year, didn't it?” Wheeler said. “Just chance after chance and controlling the play. I think we learned a lot about, you know, maybe they controlled the play in the offensive zone but you bend and don’t break. Everyone stayed at home, played defensively and did not let them get in the house. I think that is why they didn't score, because we let Tuukka see the puck and just weathered the storm and tried to get it out, and if we couldn’t, it was just stay in your spot and do the best you can.”
The Bruins had 21 blocked shots against eight for the Flyers, and that really tells the tale of Game 3 and the entire series. Blocked shots are the desperation stat. Look at the Canadiens — in Game 7 of the quarterfinals they blocked 41 shots to 11 for Washington and upset the Capitals, a team that had outscored them in the regular season by nearly 100 goals, 2-1.
The Flyers know about desperation. The grit of their team, Ian Laperriere, is out for the season and perhaps the rest of his career with a contusion on his brain after taking a shot to the head against the Devils. He was showed in a Flyers version of “What if this guy never did this great thing” NHL playoff commercial as “What if Ian didn’t know the meaning of sacrifice?” The Jumbotron then showed him in the Zamboni tunnel wearing a suit and waving to the camera. It was the loudest, most extended cheer the Wachovia Center had all game.
“Well, I think it’s what a lot of teams are doing these days, whether it’s our series or other series,” Julien said. “This is the time of year where guys are willing to sacrifice everything they’ve got. The team we’re playing tonight has got a pretty good player that’s out of their lineup that did the same thing — tried to block a shot and got it in the head. That just goes to show what playoffs are all about.
“Guys are willing to do whatever it takes. We’re part of that group, and our guys feel the importance of blocking shots. They’ve got some guys that can shoot the puck well from the point, and it’s important for us to get in front of those.”
As usual, it was Johnny Boychuk who threw his body about the most, with a game-high five blocked shots. There was a time that he left the game briefly and went down the tunnel after a block, only to return a few minutes later.
So, when it comes down to the numbers, the scoreboard says the Bruins had more heart than the Flyers. Philadelphia should not be wondering how they find themselves in this situation. Through three games, the Flyers have led for a grand total of 1:39. It is obvious.
WHEELER SMILING FOR THE FIRST TIME IN A WHILE
It has been a while since people around the team have seen Blake Wheeler actually smile and seem happy.
The sophomore forward has been pressing so hard down the stretch and in the playoffs that he has not produced much in the postseason. He had two assists in a game against Buffalo but other than that, not so much. It was natural that, when Marc Savard came back, that Wheeler get bumped from to the fourth line, or even the press box.
But the monkey if finally off his back. In his 17th career playoff game, he finally has a goal. It came at 4:11 in the first period after Asham had given the Flyers the early (and brief) lead. Wheeler camped out in front of Brian Boucher and deflected a Matt Hunwick shot from the left point into the net. Simply put, it was the type of play that the Bruins expect from a guy his size and should be more of a power forward that a smart-aleck, puck-handling skater.
“You got to just keep the faith,” Wheeler said. “There is a lot more to it in the playoffs than just scoring goals. There are guys every game who maybe do more than just scoring goals and they are just as valuable as the guys who are putting the puck on net.
“I know that I can score. I have confidence in that. But when it is not going in, you just have to do the little things well and sooner or later.”
When asked if it was a big moment in his career, a saving-the-puck-worthy, moment Wheeler kind of shook his head, said no, then said, “Well, maybe.” He has been well- trained in the Nuke LaLoosh style of postgame interviews. Instead, he deflected the praise back towards the team.
“There are bigger things this year than individual accomplishments, obviously. I have played in how many games now,  and to get the first one to finally go in is a big weight off the shoulders,” Wheeler said. “It always helps to get scoring from different lines, and we have had different guys scoring for us all throughout the playoffs. And if we get some other guys to step up and chip in as well, it just gives our team even more firepower.”
Firepower from Wheeler is going to be extremely important now that Marco Sturm and David Krejci (hit by Mike Richards in the first period, broken wrist, done for season) are now out of the picture. It will not be Wheeler along, Michael Ryder, Marc Savard, Miroslav Satan and company will have to carry the team, but the big guy from Minnesota will definitely have to be in the discussion.