- Scott Burnside, NHL
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PHILADELPHIA -- One improbable journey continues, while another comes to a painful halt.
Yet in the wake of Monday's emotional 4-2 victory by the Philadelphia Flyers, a victory that vaults them into the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1997, there will be no more talk of Cinderella journeys.
There is nothing mystical about what the Flyers have accomplished this spring and in dispatching the Montreal Canadiens in five games. This is a team that will be considered a heavy underdog against the Chicago Blackhawks, but it would be unwise for anyone, least of all the Blackhawks, to treat these Flyers as anything but equals.
"I think if you don't believe you're going to win the Stanley Cup, then you probably won't," said Flyers coach Peter Laviolette, who took the Carolina Hurricanes to a championship in 2006. "We've talked about it as a group from the start. That has to be your goal. There's a lot of short-term goals that go into that, and there's a lot of things that have to take place; but ultimately, if you're not in it to win it, you're probably not going to win it, so ..."
Within the crush of people jammed into the euphoric Philadelphia locker room, there was owner Ed Snider with a brand-new Eastern Conference championship ball cap perched on his head, posing for pictures in front of a championship T-shirt. He built this team out of nothing but hope and nerve back in the late 1960s, badgering the NHL to let him in the door when the league expanded from six to 12 teams in 1967.
He has waited a long time to walk back through the door to the Stanley Cup finals and even longer to reach the pinnacle (the last Cup parade took place here 35 years ago).
"We've been in the finals many times since we won the Cups and we've been disappointed," Snider said of the five times the Flyers have been back to the Cup finals since winning back-to-back championships in 1974 and 1975. "But this year, I have a different kind of feeling. I mean, this team just won't quit, and I'm hoping, I'm not predicting, I'm hoping, they continue to show the same kind of relentless play that they've showed and that we can surprise the whole hockey world."
Perhaps when you've overcome as many obstacles as the Flyers have this spring, maybe those surprises simply become the norm, that defying the odds and the critics merely becomes part of your DNA.
It was so in Game 5 as Philadelphia spotted Montreal a 1-0 lead just 59 seconds into the game. But the Flyers kept pushing. Mike Richards scored a crucial short-handed goal to tie the game after crashing into Roman Hamrlik and netminder Jaroslav Halak. After the Flyers took a 3-1 lead into the third period, the Canadiens pulled to within a goal and were handed a glorious opportunity to tie it when Chris Pronger was sent off for four minutes for clipping P.K. Subban in the face with his stick.
But the team that made history in the last round by coming back from a 3-0 series deficit against Boston killed off most of the four-minute power play until the Canadiens took a penalty of their own. The Flyers held the Canadiens without a power-play goal on six tries in Game 5 and finished the series killing off 21 of 22 power-play attempts. Game 5 also marked the only time in the series when the team scoring first didn't go on to win the game.
But here's the thing. In dispatching the plucky Canadiens, the Flyers got healthy and got down to the business of ending up just where many people thought they might be at the start of the season. The fact they struggled, fired their coach, used more goalies than Philly has cheesesteaks and had to sneak into the playoffs on a shootout in the last game of the regular season has skewed the perspective of this team while simultaneously galvanizing its will to win.
"It is special, especially the way we came in," said Ian Laperriere, who has become a kind of cult figure in Philadelphia after blocking a shot with his face against the Devils in the first round and then returning to action in Game 4 of the conference finals. "We believe in our team. We know we touched rock bottom and it wasn't fun around here. Sometimes, though, when you do that, it makes your team stronger and obviously it did."
He delivered several key blocks Monday night. "Lappy will block a shot until his dying day and he is a great addition to our team," Snider said.
Jeff Carter also returned to the lineup well ahead of schedule in Game 4 in Montreal after breaking a bone in his foot in Game 4 of the opening round. He scored the eventual winner in Game 5, finding the net through a crowd in tight quarters shortly after Arron Asham gave the Flyers their first lead of the night.
If there were questions at the start of the season about goaltending, they appeared to have been answered by the early strong play of Ray Emery. But with Emery injured, those questions are now being answered by journeyman Michael Leighton.
Critics will suggest goaltending will once again be a question mark for the Flyers in the Cup finals. Yet in the four wins in this series, Leighton allowed just two goals. He shut out Montreal three times and was ice calm in the third period of Game 5, as the Habs pushed for the equalizer, by turning aside 11 of 12 shots in the third and 25 of 27 overall Monday night.
"It's unbelievable to come where I've come from, to be here right now and to wear this hat and be up here is pretty amazing," said Leighton, like Snider sporting a new conference championship cap. "My goal in life wasn't to win this award, it was to win the next one. So when that's over and done with, we'll celebrate some more."
Underdogs? Likely. But don't try to sell that to the Flyers. They are deep on both sides of the puck, and boast one of the greatest defensemen of his generation in Pronger and a Stanley Cup-winning coach in Laviolette, who has remade the Flyers during the course of the regular season.
"I don't consider us underdogs," Richards said. "I know what this group is capable of, and how they're capable of playing. Obviously, our year wasn't the same as theirs [Chicago] with the whirlwind and the ups and downs and the roller coaster that we went on this year."
As the buzzer sounded on this series, Richards skated out to meet NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly and quickly grabbed the Prince of Wales Trophy despite the annual debate about whether it's bad luck to take it.
"Um, it was actually a little bit of a debate on the ice. ... But I thought a little about it last night, and my first instinct was to grab it," Richards explained. "Obviously, it took us a lot to get here, and obviously [it's] not the trophy that we want. But we haven't done anything conventional all year, especially in these playoffs, so might as well go against the grain one more time."
Next stop: Chicago.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
9hDanny Knobler, Special to ESPN.com