Shift after shift, line after line, game after game, they out-chanced and outmuscled the Penguins until their only recourse was undisciplined play and abject embarrassment in the Flyers' third win of the series. The Flyers preyed on their opponents' goaltending mistakes, and feasted on their frustration. Their top players soared while the Penguins soured.
In the second round, the Flyers became the Penguins.
And now their Stanley Cup championship drought has reached its 37th consecutive year.
The New Jersey Devils eliminated the Flyers in Game 5, 3-1, having outplayed Philadelphia for four straight games. Ilya Kovalchuk scored a goal, while Scott Hartnell, Jaromir Jagr, Danny Briere, James van Riemsdyk and Jakub Voracek did not; and Claude Giroux could not thanks to his suspension. Martin Brodeur looked shaky but didn't falter in making 28 saves; Ilya Bryzgalov had the gaffe of the second round on a David Clarkson goal.
The Flyers were frustrated, but couldn't goad the Devils into after-the-whistle physicality — they "turned the other cheek," according to Coach Pete DeBoer.
Meanwhile, the Flyers were making mistakes. Zac Rinaldo, filling in for Giroux, took a kneeing penalty on Dainius Zubrus behind the play. James van Riemsdyk gave Patrik Elias a reverse bulldog in the third period, and Ilya Kovalchuk scored a critical insurance goal three seconds into the power play.
Simply put, the Flyers going out in this manner was unimaginable after their rousing win over the Penguins. They captured Game 1 against the Devils in overtime, and then decided to punch the clock after Matt Read scored 2:53 into a Game 2 in which the Devils were missing Ilya Kovalchuk.
New Jersey responded with four goals in the third period; it could be argued they didn't lose another period in the series. Their forecheck and offensive push rivaled that of the Flyers in the opening round, as did they complete confidence and lack of panic in the face of adversity.
What happened to the ravenous team that devoured the Penguins' soul?
As Scott Hartnell let slip on May 4, they underestimated Jersey:
"I don't think we thought we were going to win four straight," Hartnell said today, "but definitely, they've played a lot stronger and a lot harder than me personally would have thought they'd come with. They've been on a high the last few weeks obviously, beating Florida in Game 7.
"To have to step off that plane and take the bus to come [to Philly] and play, they're riding that high. They've been playing really strong, playing really hard, and for us, maybe that week off was affecting our play so far."
And maybe the hoisted the Cup in Round 1, after this victory:
There was nothing more symbolic of the Flyers' frustrating transformation from Cup favorite to second-round casualty than Giroux's one-game suspension for a head shot on Zubrus.
In Round 1, he was the unquestioned leader of the upset, scoring points, laying out Sidney Crosby and earning entrance into the Best Player in the World conversation. But he had two goals and an assist in four games against the Devils, skating to a minus-4. A moment of selfish frustration took him out of Game 5. The hero became a goat.
But that's how quickly things change in these playoffs. Paul Holmgren was looking like a managerial genius after the first round, the purge of the Flyers' locker room last summer leading to an emphatic victory. Now, these Flyers will be watching Mike Richards and Jeff Carter in the Western Conference Final, having already watched the player their salaries cleared room for -- Ilya Bryzgalov -- undermine an otherwise solid series with a crippling blunder in an elimination game. (Please note his former team is also still alive in the playoffs.)
A goaltending mistake and dashed expectations. For the Flyers, this is a sadly familiar tune.
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