Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette, perhaps, said it best after his team’s 4-3 overtime win over the New Jersey Devils Sunday: “There are people who answer the bell.”
Danny Briere is one of those people.
Playing on a new line and under immense playoff pressure, Briere shined Sunday, scoring two goals, including the overtime game winner to give Philadelphia a 1-0 lead in its Eastern Conference semifinal.
The 34-year-old Briere, it seems, has always found a way to come up with an answer when the season is on the line. Since joining the Flyers before the 2007-08 season, Briere has played in 64 playoff games and tallied 69 points on 36 goals and 33 assists, including an impressive 30 points (12 goals, 18 assists) in 23 playoff games during Philadelphia’s Stanley Cup Finals run two seasons ago.
His two goals Sunday tied him for the team-high with seven for the playoffs — one for each game so far as the fifth-seeded Flyers inch closer and closer to another crack at the Cup.
“Danny’s been a successful player for our team since I’ve been here, and when it gets to the playoffs, this is a guy that takes off,” Laviolette said. “To put up the amount of points that he has in the playoffs speaks volumes to him as a player, because playoffs are why we’re here and that’s what matters.
“He’s a guy that has consistently gotten it done, not just this year or two years ago or in his career, but he does it game after game. I think everybody expects that from him.”
There was a time this season, however, when it was unclear whether Briere would be able to live up to his own high standard when the Flyers so badly needed it during the playoffs.
Briere suffered a concussion during a Jan. 21 game against these same Devils, but he returned on Feb. 7 against the Islanders. Though Briere was fortunate to have a quick recovery — he missed six games, while others have missed considerably more time with similar injuries — the residual effect of the injury was hard not to notice.
After scoring a career-high 34 goals last season, Briere lit the lamp just three times over his final 17 post-concussion games — this after scoring 13 times in his first 53.
“It was a tough, trying time,” Briere said of his struggles. “Looking back, I remember I had a severe concussion early in my career when I was 21 years old, and it took me almost a year to bounce back from that. I don’t know if that had anything to do with it, but after the concussion this year, I went into a lull for almost two months. Was that the case, or was I just bad? I don’t know exactly.
“But when the playoffs started it was kind of the chance for a new season. You erase everything that happened before and you can’t even look back on anything that happened before in your career. It’s a new season, you start anew, and you try to help out your team as much as possible.”
In the days leading up to Game 1, Briere learned he would soon be trying to help his team with a couple new linemates.
After playing previously on a line with Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds, Briere was shifted and teamed up with James van Riemsdyk and Jakub Voracek, instead.
Briere’s new line — along with the rest of the Philadelphia bench — struggled early Sunday.
The Flyers, who hadn’t played in a week since finishing off the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round, came out slowly and saw the Devils put 11 shots on net before Philly took its first. After one period, Philadelphia had taken just six shots — its fourth-lowest total in a period this postseason — and trailed 1-0.
Laviolette said after the game that the dreary first period frustrated him, the players and, most importantly, the fans, who were in need of a spark after watching their team get dominated on both ends of the ice.
That jolt would come soon enough, though, on Briere’s first goal of the night, a breakaway shot off a beautiful assist from Voracek that sailed past New Jersey netminder Martin Brodeur to tie it at 1-1 with 11:53 left in the period.
The two teams traded goals over the final 32 minutes of regulation, with Van Riemsdyk and Claude Giroux scoring for Philadelphia and Travis Zajac and Petr Sykora finding the net for the Devils.
Early in the overtime period, before he scored the actual game winner, Briere thought he had ended the contest when a puck ricocheted off his skate and past Brodeur just 2:13 into the extra frame. But video review showed that the puck had been kicked, and the goal was disallowed as a result.
“When I was on the bench, there’s a few seconds when you’re shaking your head and you’re saying, ‘That was the wrong call; I can’t believe this is happening,’” said Briere, acknowledging that the correct call had been made. “And then it was like, ‘All right, time to stop pouting now, let’s get back to work and refocus. We’ll deal with that after the game.’”
It didn’t take long for Briere to make amends, however, and just 2:23 later, Briere beat Brodeur five-hole with the game winner.
“The way we had played in the second and third period, 5-on-5, we felt like we were in control of the game, and we were skating so well, so we had the same mindset,” Briere said of overtime. “We had to keep attacking, put as many pucks on net as possible … and go hard to the net, and we got a break there on mine.”
The clutch shot didn’t come as much of a surprise to the 19,972 Flyers fans in attendance who have grown used to watching Briere come up with big plays when his team needed them. Briere has made a career out of thriving under pressure, and over the years, being clutch has become so second nature to the 14-year vet that he hardly even breaks a sweat when doing it.
“I grew up watching playoff hockey when I was a kid, and I always dreamed that one day I’d have the chance to play in those big games,” Briere said. “When I have the opportunity like I have this year, and like I’ve had the last few years in the playoffs, you try to make the best of it and try to enjoy it as much as possible. It’s not really pressure, it’s actually a fun, exciting time.”
And it’s especially fun when you’re the guy answering the bell.