Danny Briere had two chances to celebrate his overtime winner.
The first time, his goal didn’t count.
The second time, Briere left no doubt and put away Game 1, once and for all.
Briere continued to stamp his name alongside Philadelphia’s postseason greats, scoring the winning goal 4:36 into overtime, leading the Flyers to a 4-3 win over the New Jersey Devils on Sunday to open this Eastern Conference semifinal series.
”He has his ups and downs, but he just picks it up in the playoffs. And that’s what matters,” Flyers coach Peter Laviolette said. ”He’s a guy who consistently gets it done.”
Indeed, no Flyer is as clutch in the postseason as Briere.
His second attempt at the winner counted minutes after his earlier goal was overturned on review because he kicked the puck into the net. But he wasted no time making up for it, firing a slapper past Martin Brodeur for his seventh goal of the playoffs. Brodeur was screened in front by Philadelphia forward James van Riemsdyk.
”When you look at the replay, it’s kind of obvious,” Briere said of the reversal. ”But I needed to stop pouting and get back my focus in overtime. I ended up getting a break.”
In doing so, Briere, who also scored in the second period, now has 106 points in 104 career postseason games.
”Is it pressure? I think it’s fun,” he said of playoff hockey. ”When I have the opportunity, like I’ve had the past few years here, I try to take advantage of the opportunities.”
Game 2 is Tuesday.
The Flyers took the series lead in their first game in a week after eliminating Pittsburgh in Game 6 last Sunday. The weary Devils, meanwhile, played their third consecutive overtime game after defeating Florida in Games 6 and 7 to win their first-round series.
”I thought we played real well in the first,” New Jersey coach Peter DeBoer said. ”We just couldn’t keep it up.”
The Flyers put a slow start well behind them in the third and completely set the pace. They used a tremendous forecheck to stave off the Devils and played with more life in their skates than a worn-down Devils team that had only a three-day break.
And then, there’s Flyers forward Claude Giroux. The postseason’s leading scorer got himself into the series, as well, in the third period. Giroux, in fact, wound from the circle and fired the puck high over Brodeur’s right shoulder for a power-play goal and a 3-2 lead. It was Giroux’s seventh goal of the postseason, perhaps living up to Laviolette’s bold claim as, ”the best in the world.”
Veteran forward Petr Sykora wiped out the lead, though, when he raced past two defenders off a turnover and slipped the puck through Ilya Bryzgalov’s pads for a soft goal to make it 3-3. It was his first playoff goal since 2008.
But Briere was the difference in overtime.
”I think,” Laviolette said, ”everyone expects it from him now.”
After finishing fifth in the East, the Flyers stormed to a 3-0 lead against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round and held on to eliminate their state rival in six games. That series was viewed as one more worthy of a conference final because of the talent and the 100-plus point totals for each club.
The Devils, the No. 6 seed, topped 100 points, as well, and were out to prove themselves worthy of Round 2. And in the first period, they did so. Of course, the Flyers helped, as they carried over their trend of falling behind from the opening a round and showed again they are at their best when playing with a deficit.
”Nobody liked the first period. The players didn’t like it. I didn’t like it. No one liked it,” Laviolette said. ”So, it was good to get through the first period, only down 1-0. And then for me, it started in the second period. We had the fire it took to be successful.”
Jakub Voracek made a nice pass from along the boards to Briere and he busted free alone on the open ice for the breakaway goal in the second. Van Riemsdyk knocked in a rebound and gave the Flyers a 2-1 edge only 37 seconds later. Van Riemsdyk stamped himself as a franchise cornerstone last postseason when he scored seven goals in only 11 postseason games and earned a $25.5 million, six-year contract extension. But he scored only 11 goals in 43 games in a season derailed by a broken left foot and a concussion.
But van Riemsdyk came to play in Game 1, perhaps spurred on by playing his homestate team. He is, after all, a Middletown, N.J., native. And he was key on the winner as well, as he stood tall directly in front of a prone Brodeur as the winner trickled by.
”Van Riemsdyk definitely pushed my stick over when he came across,” Brodeur said. ”He didn’t do it on purpose. He was just going in front of the net. I got my position there, but it prevented me from making the save.”
There was no way that goal was getting a second look by the officials.
”They wouldn’t do that twice in Philly,” Brodeur said. ”That’s for sure.”
Flyers fans who have suffered through decades of goaltending woes took great delight in chanting ”Mar-ty! Mar-ty!” at the three-time Stanley Cup champion. Brodeur has faced the Flyers four other times in the postseason, winning two.
Travis Zajac, who scored an overtime winner vs. Florida in Game 6, as well, poked one past Bryzgalov for a power-play goal late in the second to tie the game. This all came from a Devils team that won a 3-2 double-overtime Game 7 thriller against Southeast Division-champion Florida on Thursday.
But the Flyers started the way they did the previous two series vs. New Jersey: By winning Game 1. They eventually won those series in 2004 and 2010, reaching the Stanley Cup finals in the latter. In fact, in three of the previous series between these two rivals – separated by just 87 miles – the winner reached the finals, with the Devils winning the Cup in 1995 and 2000.
Opposing Brodeur was Bryzgalov, who had two shutouts and won all three starts vs. the Devils in the regular season. He allowed one goal on 76 shots.
So much for the regular season.
The Devils never stopped shooting on the rattled veteran in the first period. They took the first 11 shots before the Flyers finally lobbed the puck from the blue line toward Brodeur.
The Devils are now 2-3 on the road in the postseason and this was their first loss in overtime.
”If we came in and lost 6-0, maybe we’d talk about adjustments,” said Devils captain Zach Parise, who opened the scoring at 3:11 of the first off a feed from Patrik Elias. ”We were right there. We had just as good a chance to win the game as they did.”
NOTES: Brodeur will celebrate his 40th birthday next Sunday when the teams play Game 4 of their series in New Jersey. … Philadelphia is now 4-1 at home this postseason. … Zajac leads the Devils with four postseason goals.