Better With Popcorn

Unexpected Heroes Lift Flyers to Series Lead

After tying their first round series with the Buffalo Sabres at 1-1 on Saturday, the Philadelphia Flyers had two new faces in the starting lineup on Monday. The first was goalie Brian Boucher, who played extremely well in relief of Sergei Bobrovsky in game two and helped the Flyers get the series even. The other new face was Nikolay Zherdev, who was inserted into the lineup after Andreas Nodl was ruled out of game three with an upper body injury. Both moves paid dividends in a big way for the Flyers as they regained possession of home-ice advantage with a 4-2 win at HSBC Arena.

One player that had failed to make his presence known through the first two games of the series struck first on Monday. On an odd-man rush during a power play, Flyers forward Jeff Carter attempted to pass the puck after entering Buffalo’s zone. The puck was deflected by a defenseman’s skate and bounced right back to Carter and he fired one of his patented wrist-shots past Ryan Miller.

Carter’s goal came just 4:42 into the game, and the Sabres found their legs immediately after the tally. The Sabres dominated the ice, and the culmination was a tie game when Drew Stafford beat Boucher for a power play goal. On the goal, defensemen Andrej Meszaros and Kimmo Timonen stood by as Thomas Vanek screened their goaltender. The score would remain tied as the teams headed to intermission, despite the Sabres out-shooting Philadelphia 16-6.

The man that Buffalo loves to hate, Daniel Briere, got the lead back in the Flyers favor 3:44 into the second stanza. Although Briere found the back of the net, it was Scott Hartnell that made the play possible. He lifted Chris Butler’s stick behind Buffalo’s net and stripped him of the puck. After maneuvering enough to make Miller lose balance, he fed Briere, who was squarely in front of the net.

Hartnell’s play would be indicative of the second period, as the Flyers came fast and furiously at Buffalo, especially on the fore-check. Philadelphia took a two-goal lead because of their relentless nature. It was an unexpected culprit that added the Flyers’ third goal, which would turn out to be the game-winning goal. What was even more unexpected was his performance on the play.

On an aggressive fore-check, it was Zherdev who forced a poor pass in the Buffalo zone. As the Sabres re-established possession, Kris Versteeg stripped them of the puck and found Mike Richards to the right of Miller. Richards held onto the puck long enough to make Miller commit and hit Zherdev with a pass that the enigmatic forward simply tapped in the net.

Nathan Gerbe would beat Boucher soon after Zherdev’s goal and no shot would beat him again on the night. The cagey veteran goalie withstood everything thrown his way in the final stanza until Timonen iced the game with an empty-net goal. The home-ice advantage that Buffalo had stolen in game one was now back in possession of the Orange and Black.

If there is any constant to the NHL playoffs, it very well may be that nothing can be predicted beforehand. The Flyers headed into games one and two with Boucher the clear-cut backup goalie, and Zherdev a clear-cut press box attendant. In the blink of an eye, the two have left an imprint on the series.

For Boucher, Bobrovsky’s stellar play down the stretch overwhelmed the veteran’s consistency, but now that consistency is needed. The ‘calming presence’ that head coach Peter Laviolette believes that the Woonsocket, Rhode Island native brings was on full display Monday night. He stopped 35 of 37 shots, and was unfazed from the opening face-off.

And, there is Zherdev. Being the enigma that he’s been all his career, it’s possible he will make no impact or nothing but a negative impact on the series as it moves forward. But, for one shift he made a play that resulted in a momentum shift for the series. Not many expected any impact from a player that had been consistently scratched this season. This is the same player that was waived at a point this season, and went unclaimed despite having a double-digit goal total. And, his failure to be claimed went as a surprise to very few.

Few teams have someone with the offensive talent of Zherdev to bring in when there is an injury to a starter. Few teams started the playoffs with a capable backup goaltender that has extensive playoff experience waiting in the event of the rookie starter playing like a rookie. The Flyers have the luxury of both.

Those luxuries helped them take back control of their first round series. Because those luxuries were two of the game's three stars, the Flyers now have another luxury; home ice advantage.

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