PHILADELPHIA // The Philadelphia Flyers joined the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup final after completing a 4-1 series win over the Montreal Canadiens in their Eastern Conference playoff on Monday. The Flyers, who have defied incredible odds to reach the NHL's championship decider for the first time since 1997, wrapped up their best-of-seven series against Montreal with a 4-2 victory in Game 5.
The Canadiens caught the Flyers napping when Brian Gionta scored in the first minute of the game but the Flyers equalised in the first period through inspirational captain Mike Richards. The Flyers then opened up a commanding two-goal lead after Arron Asham and Jeff Carter found the net in the second period. Scott Gomez gave the Habs some hope of avoiding elimination when he pulled one back early in the final period before Carter scored his second in the final minute to put the result beyond doubt.
Phildaelphia's rivetting win was just the latest chapter in an incredible rollercoaster end to the season where they appeared doomed several times but somehow managed to find a way through. They only snuck into the playoffs after beating the New York Rangers in a shootout in the final round of the regular season. They upset the highly-fancied New Jersey Devils in the first round of the playoffs but were left reeling when they lost the first three games of their semi-final series with the Boston Bruins.
Yet they somehow managed to win the next four games, becoming only the third NHL team to come from 3-0 down and win a best-of-seven series. The Canadiens had also taken the hard road to the Eastern Conference final, sneaking into the playoffs as the lowest ranked team, and were also battling fatigue. They upset conference top seeds Washington in seven games in the first round then knocked out the defending champions Pittsburgh, also in seven games in the semi-finals, but ran out of puff against Philadelphia.
The Flyers won the first two games at home without conceding a goal and despite losing the third game in Montreal, another shutout in Game 4 brought them back to the Wachovia Center brimming with confidence and one win away from a final berth. The capacity crowd welcomed the home team onto the ice with the soundtrack of the Rocky movies blaring from the loudspeakers but it was the visitors who landed the first punch.
Gionta weaved his way around Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger and slipped the puck past goaltender Michael Leighton after just 59 seconds. Richards tied the game at 1-1 after he slipped and scrambled back to his skates to slide the puck into an empty net but the decisive moment came in the second period when the Flyers scored twice in 90 seconds. The Stanley Cup final starts in Chicago on Saturday. The Blackhawks are one of the original six NHL teams and have not won the Stanley Cup in 49 years. However, they are in devastating form this season, demolishing the top seeded San Jose Sharks 4-0 in the Western Conference final. * Reuters