Sunday, March 23, 2008
Updated: March 24, 12:17 PM ET
After season of struggles, Briere, Drury finding game at perfect time
By Scott Burnside
PHILADELPHIA -- Shortly after Daniel Briere scored twice in a crucial 4-3 shootout win over the New York Rangers on Friday night, the Flyers center signed autographs and posed for pictures with a family introduced to him outside the team's locker room by former Flyer Joe Watson.
As he turned to leave, the woman, sporting a Briere jersey, asked if it would be OK if she got a hug.
"A hug for luck," someone suggested.
Briere smiled and shrugged his shoulders.
During a season that hasn't quite gone the way Briere had imagined, he's happy to find luck anywhere he can.
"It's funny the roller coaster of emotions you go through at this time of year," Briere told ESPN.com. "You lose a game and it's so tough. Win a game and it seems like everything's great."
If there is something Briere is familiar with in this, his first season as a Philadelphia Flyer, it's the ups and downs. The problem is Briere really isn't an up-and-down kind of guy.
"I'm a perfectionist," he said. "It's never good enough. It's probably never going to be good enough."
Is that just a hockey thing or is he like that at home, too?
"At home, too. It gets me in trouble, too, if you ask my wife."
Briere said he is working on not getting too wound up about things at home, especially when his wife is on her own with their three boys, ages 6, 8 and 9.
"It's something I'm trying to change at home, too," he said. "It's kind of the way I am."
Not having the house the way he wants it after a road trip is one thing; not playing the way he wants is quite another for someone like Briere, who has emerged in the past couple of years as an elite player.
"This year wasn't even close to being good enough," he said.
Briere is especially remorseful about his play in January and February. Over 26 games between Dec. 29 and Feb. 21, he had five goals and 11 assists and was minus-15.
"I knew it was going to take some time, but it obviously has been a little bit more frustrating than I thought it was going to be," Briere said.
And things started so well, too.
Playing with Simon Gagne, Briere had four goals and three assists through the Flyers' first three-game road trip of the season.
"I was thinking, 'Wow, this is perfect. Maybe there won't be any kind of setback and I'll just be able to roll through it,'" Briere said with a rueful grin.
Then, he scored once in the next 12 games. Gagne, who suffered a concussion after taking a hit to the jaw in an Oct. 24 game, played in just 25 games and isn't expected back this season. With Gagne gone, Briere has played with almost everyone except the Zamboni driver, 18 different wingers in all.
|Daniel Briere, left, and Chris Drury are no longer teammates, but the forwards have still kept in touch this season.|
"I'm not putting the blame on that, but
" Briere said.
during parts of four seasons in Buffalo, Briere played mostly with three forwards: J.P. Dumont, Jochen Hecht and Jason Pominville.
"Chemistry is a big part of it on a line," Briere said. "That's why it's been a lot of fun lately since Vinny's [Czech winger Vaclav Prospal] been traded here. We've had a chance to play together every single day."
There's a kind of symmetry in having this discussion a day after the team's big win over the Rangers. Briere's former co-captain in Buffalo, Chris Drury, also took a long time to find his comfort zone in New York after signing a five-year, $35.25 million with the club this past offseason.
"Ask a foster kid what it's like going into a new home," Rangers coach Tom Renney said when asked about the challenges in integrating a new player, even an elite player like Drury or Briere.
Each team has its own habits and cultural differences, and it takes time for a player to adjust to that.
Typically, Drury doesn't buy into anything that smacks as an excuse.
"As a team and as an individual, my focus is always on the next game," Drury told ESPN.com this week.
If you start telling yourself you've got to do certain things this week and then something else next week, "you might drive yourself insane," Drury said.
"I just expect myself to be mentally and physically ready every day," Drury added. "Those are the things I know I can control."
Of the two players, Drury was grittier, a two-way player with a knack for the big play, whether that was winning a faceoff, blocking a shot or scoring a timely goal, like the one he scored last postseason against the Rangers. His goal in the final seconds of Game 5 forced overtime, and the Sabres eventually won and then advanced to their second straight Eastern Conference finals after winning Game 6.
Last week, Drury was at it again, scoring a late goal against New Jersey to tie up a game the Rangers went on to win in a shootout. It was a symbol of how far Drury has come this season. After a desultory start wherein the Rangers were one of the lowest scoring teams in the NHL and Drury uncharacteristically a minus player, he and the team have turned a significant corner.
I'm a perfectionist. It's never good enough. It's probably never going to be good enough. At home, too. It gets me in trouble, too, if you ask my wife.
--Daniel Briere on his struggles this season
In his 25 games prior to Friday's loss, Drury was plus-11 and chipped in 11 goals and seven assists. He'll still end up well shy of last season's career-best 37 goals (he has 23 with seven games left), but as far as the Rangers are concerned, those numbers are irrelevant given what he is capable of in the playoffs.
"He's a more confident player," Renney said. "He understands where he is now. He's a Ranger. He's just more confident."
If Drury was seen as the quiet leader in the Joe Sakic mold (Drury won a Cup with Sakic in Colorado), Briere was the yin to that yang -- emotional and explosively talented, the kind of player who could light it up at any given moment. In his past two seasons in Buffalo, Briere racked up 57 goals and 96 assists in 129 games. He added 34 points in 34 postseason games, numbers that garnered him a whopper eight-year, $52 million contract over the summer.
During the summer, Drury and Briere talked often as they discussed their options as unrestricted free agents. They have continued to talk this season when time allows. They recently had dinner together.
Briere laughs when he's told Drury seems not to have given his point totals and plus/minus status a second thought in New York.
"I've got a lot of respect for Chris, the way he handles himself," Briere said. "I learned a lot from him. Sometimes opposites attract. Maybe that's why we got along so well. I'm not so sure I could imagine getting along with anybody else like that, but with Chris it was really easy."
Did he notice that Drury, too, was struggling to get acclimated as a Ranger?
"To be honest, I didn't follow his stats. And knowing Chris, he was more about where the Rangers were than his stats," he said. "Plus, I had some things of my own going on."
The native of Gatineau, Quebec, is a smart man. He knew what he was walking into in Philadelphia -- a hockey market that hasn't had a Stanley Cup winner since 1975 and one that was rebuilding from its worst season ever. He could have gone to a number of different places, but he's here for the long haul now.
"Believe me, there's no regrets at all," he said. "I don't even think about, 'What would happen if.' I'm happy here. When you have tough times, it makes you appreciate even more when things start turning, when things go well."
And here's one of those "things." On Monday morning, the Flyers, for all of their injuries and inconsistency, sat seventh in the Eastern Conference. A year removed from being the worst team in the NHL, they may be headed to the playoffs. And if Briere keeps playing the way he has over the past nine games -- he's had seven goals and four assists, and even dropped his gloves against Atlanta's Eric Perrin (they didn't actually fight, but it was the thought that counts) -- the Flyers' chances look pretty good.
Flyers coach John Stevens points not just to the point production, but the more consistent two-way play Briere has brought to the ice. Briere is plus-3 over his past 12 games.
"He's really got a worker mentality," Stevens said. "He looks like a different player now."
"I feel like I'm now back on track. I can feel my game coming around," Briere said. "You just know it, you feel it."
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
|Chris Drury signed a five-year, $35.25 million contract with the Rangers this past offseason.|