After the Flyers made relatively quick work of the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, it was on to the Semis and yet another date with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Flyers had faced the Maple Leafs in the opening round of the playoffs the year before, pulling out a seven-game series win. That series was filled with animosity and dramatics that went the distance and this was sure to be the same.
To that point, the Flyers had reached the postseason in 10 straight seasons and the 2003 Stanley Cup Playoffs were their first beyond the conference quarterfinals since 2000. The Flyers were being regarded as regular contenders in the playoffs, but just never quite getting over the hump.
There was plenty of excitement in the air as the Flyers played host to the opening games of the series and there were certainly moments of doubt within the series where it seemed like the Flyers would not make it out and continue their quest for the Cup. They needed to find a way to win in Toronto to get it done, and finally did in Game 6, which became a monumental moment for the Flyers.
Today’s Series in Review is a look back at the Flyers matchup against the Toronto Maple Leafs from 2004.
The series started in Philadelphia and there was a buzz in the atmosphere with each series drawing closer to the Stanley Cup Final. The Flyers didn’t take too long to get on the board either, as Tony Amonte scored on a rebound off a face-off to give the Flyers the lead at 7:14. Toronto responded with 5:32 remaining in the period with Alexander Mogilny getting the goal.
Just over five minutes into the second period, a puck played around the end boards came all the way out to Marcus Ragnarsson at the point. He fired away and beat Ed Belfour with the shot to give the Flyers the lead again at 2-1.
The Flyers played a very disciplined Game 1, taking only three penalties in the game and Toronto’s only two power plays coming in the first five minutes of the game. As the minutes passed in the third period, there was a sense that the next goal could decide the winner — either the Flyers would go up by two and take what would feel like an insurmountable lead or Toronto would find a way to tie it up and get a chance to steal Game 1. Finally, with 4:25 remaining in the third, Simon Gagne scored on a rebound to put it away and give the Flyers the early series lead.
Through two periods, the only two scorers in Game 2 were unlikely contributors. The enforcers took center stage in the scoring for a change.
The Flyers had the only two power plays of the first period and finally cashed in late in the period. At 17:57, Donald Brashear deposited a loose puck in front to give the Flyers the lead. In the second, Toronto tied it up with Tie Domi scoring at 13:48.
After getting on the board late in the first, the Flyers only had one power play until six and a half minutes into the third. When they got their chance on the power play, they once again took advantage. Alex Zhamnov scored at the side of the net to give the Flyers the 2-1 lead with 11:35 left.
From there, both goalies made some spectacular saves to close out the game with Robert Esche making three incredible stops late in the third. He finished with 26 saves in the game and helped secure the Flyers second win at home to take a 2-0 series lead.
For as much excitement as there was from the Flyers first two home games to take a 2-0 series lead, it was quickly dashed when the series returned to Toronto.
After a scoreless first period, Toronto jumped out to the lead on a breakaway goal for Mogilny at 5:12. Just 90 seconds later, Alexei Ponikarovsky added to the lead with a deflection goal to make it 2-0. With under five minutes to go in the period, Chad Kilger added another goal to make it 3-0. Late in the second, Amonte got the Flyers on the board with a power-play goal to cut the lead to two.
The third period was a parade to the penalty box for the Flyers, as they had six different penalties that kept them shorthanded for a majority of the period. During a 5-on-3, Toronto finished off the scoring with a power-play goal from Darcy Tucker to make it 4-1 and bring the Leafs back into the series.
The Flyers got off to a better start in Game 4, getting a goal at 7:44 from Gagne right off a face-off to take the lead. Before the period ended, Mats Sundin had tied the game at 13:24 with a shot from the left wing.
In the second, Sundin was at it again, taking the puck all by himself from the right wing to the front of the net and scoring on the backhand to give Toronto a 2-1 lead at 7:45. The Flyers could not take advantage of a power play in the second and Toronto took the lead to the third.
It took just 2:19 for the Leafs to get some insurance, with Tucker scoring to make it 3-1. The Flyers never got any closer and Toronto had swept the two games at home to bring the series even again at two.
For their struggles on the road in this series, the Flyers were doing plenty of home cooking at Wachovia Center and kept that up in Game 5.
It took just 3:51 for the Flyers to get on the board as Mark Recchi created a turnover and scored to make it 1-0. Michal Handzus added a goal on a 3-on-2 at 5:43. With 1:06 remaining in the period, Keith Primeau added a shorthanded goal with a great move on a breakaway to make it 3-0. Before the period ended, Toronto got on the board with a power-play goal by Joe Nieuwendyk on Toronto’s first shot of the game.
Primeau quickly got the goal back just 44 seconds into the second period off a great feed from Gagne off the rush. At 3:54, Branko Radivojevic scored from the slot to make it 5-1. Handzus tucked in his second goal of the game on a wraparound from behind the net at 7:03 to make it 6-1 and the rout was on. Gary Roberts added another goal for Toronto in the second to make it 6-2.
In the third, the only goal of the period came from Primeau as he completed the hat trick with a shot from the slot at 3:50. The Flyers cruised the rest of the way to a 7-2 win and the series went back to Toronto where the Flyers would have a chance to win the series.
With the series on the line, the Flyers came out determined to put the series away. The Flyers struck twice in the first, getting the opening goal from Radovan Somik in the slot, then getting the second from Jeremy Roenick.
The 2-0 lead carried into the third, when the Leafs put the pressure on and found a way to erase the deficit. First, Karel Pilar scored off a face-off at 9:04 to cut the lead to one. Then Sundin completed the comeback with a goal on a rebound with 4:52 to play in the third, forcing overtime.
It was as frantic an overtime as you will see. Esche had some issues playing the puck that created some chances for the Leafs. A shot that went wide went along the boards where Sami Kapanen tried to play it and got sandwiched against the boards with a hit by Tucker. As Kapanen struggled to get to the bench with teammates trying to help, the Leafs took the play the other way and got a scoring chance. Recchi forced a turnover, creating a two-on-one, but fired his chance wide. Just seconds later, the Leafs lost control trying to enter the zone and Joni Pitkanen got the puck ahead to Roenick on a two-on-one. Roenick went high over the glove of Belfour to win the game and the series, silencing the crowd at Air Canada Centre.
When the dust settled on this series, it was as tough a series as you will find. These teams had carved out a bit of a rivalry in this time, meeting in the playoffs with regularity, and this was as intense a series as it gets with even more frenetic play than ever before.
The Leafs had built up the team, bringing in veterans like Roberts, Brian Leetch, Ron Francis and Nieuwendyk to try to put this team over the top. They certainly carried a great amount of veterans, like the Flyers, but struggled to score as Esche was excellent and the Flyers really shut them down at many points throughout the series.
It was all capped off by an overtime for the ages and even though it only lasted 7:39, that short period of playoff overtime perfectly captured the series. The Flyers were virtually on the ropes for most of that overtime and the Leafs were pouring every ounce of energy left into forcing a Game 7 with a raucous crowd behind them. When Roenick scored, all of that energy vanished and the elated Flyers rushed to celebrate.
It was set to be a great chapter in a long playoff run that came one game short of reaching the Stanley Cup Final and who knows what would have happened from there. But in this moment, the Flyers looked like a team that could not be stopped, that could get into the most physical and brutal series imagined and not budge an inch. It’s a shame that in just a couple short weeks, the season and Cup run was over.
We’ll continue the Series in Review series on Monday by jumping back to the 2000 Eastern Conference Final between the Flyers and Devils.