The Philadelphia Flyers had fought back to erase a 3-0 series deficit against the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference semifinals, but when they trailed by three goals Friday in the first period of the seventh game, Flyers goaltender Michael Leighton felt the way many fans did.
"I thought it was over," Leighton said.
The Flyers rallied for a 4-3 victory, joining the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs and 1975 New York Islanders as the only NHL teams that have won a series after losing the first three games.
And that feat only barely eclipsed the accomplishments of the Montreal Canadiens, who upset the top-seeded Washington Capitals in the first round and took down the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round, each time with Game 7 road wins.
While the Western Conference playoffs have gone close to form, the East has produced some great upsets. The No .1-, No. 2- and No. 3- seeded teams were dismissed in the first round. The fourth-seeded Penguins went home after the second round, their reign halted by the Canadiens' stifling defense and the acrobatics of goalie Jaroslav Halak, who has a playoff-best .933 save percentage.
The Flyers, who changed coaches early in the season, and the Canadiens, who changed general managers late in the season, barely made the playoffs as the No. 7- and No. 8-seeded teams, respectively. But they will be playing for a berth in the Stanley Cup finals starting Sunday at Philadelphia.
"We're still here. We're still standing," said Flyers Coach Peter Laviolette, who replaced John Stevens on Dec. 4, after the team had lost six of seven games, and installed an aggressive, up-tempo game.
Besieged by injuries to their goalies — they have used five this season — the Flyers squeezed into the playoffs by beating the New York Rangers in a shootout in their regular-season finale. But they dispatched the second-seeded New Jersey Devils in five games before coming back to eliminate the Bruins, pulling it off despite losing goalie Brian Boucher to a knee injury in Game 5 and playing Leighton for the first time in two months.
"We're part of history now," said Simon Gagne, knowing the Flyers would have been history if he had not scored the winner on a power play in Game 7.
There's a lot to like about the Flyers, starting with their toughness — Chris Pronger can still hit with the best of them — the scoring potential of Gagne, Claude Giroux and Danny Briere, and the leadership of Mike Richards, their top scorer during the regular season (31 goals, 62 points) and in the playoffs (five goals, 17 points). They have come this far with suspect goaltending. Can they keep it up?
The Canadiens were not expected to be here, either, after drawing the high-scoring Capitals and defending champion Penguins in the first two rounds. But their speed, Halak's goaltending and the ability of left wing Michael Cammalleri to slip into holes and find the net — he has a playoff-leading 12 goals — have turned them into worldbeaters.
Bob Gainey, the former Canadiens general manager, was criticized last summer for trades and signings that landed smallish forwards Cammalleri, Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez. But Gainey, who resigned Feb. 8 after deciding he couldn't make a long-term commitment to the team, has been proved prophetic.
"They said we were too small, not big enough to make the playoffs," said Cammalleri, who tied a franchise record by scoring seven goals in the Pittsburgh series. "But we knew what kind of players we had in this room."
They have an outstanding goalie in Halak, who led Slovakia to its first Olympic medal-round game in February. Hal Gill, though hampered in the second round by a gash on his leg, is an imposing shutdown defenseman at 6 feet 7 and knows how to handle playoff pressure after winning the Cup with Pittsburgh last spring.
The Canadiens, once the NHL's standard of excellence, have not been to the conference finals since 1993, when they won the last of their 24 Cup titles and 23 NHL championships. If their team game remains cohesive and Halak keeps his composure, they could take this improbable journey one step further.