Flyers Sami Kapanen, of Finland, celebrates his goal. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Lawrence Jackson
WASHINGTON - Philadelphia Flyers coach John Stevens was so excited about Game 7 against Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals that he skipped the team bus and took the 40-minute walk from the hotel to the rink.
Stevens' players were so calm and collected despite seeing a 3-1 series lead evaporate that about a half-dozen gathered for their traditional pregame soccer ball juggling outside their locker room, right near the signs reading, "No ball playing of any kind in this area."
Both approaches paid off, and Philadelphia finally figured out how to put away Washington. Joffrey Lupul scored on a rebound during a power play 6:06 into overtime, Martin Biron made 39 saves, and the Flyers avoided a monumental collapse by beating Washington 3-2 Tuesday night in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference first-round series.
"A lot of people thought we were dead. A lot of people," said Flyers forward Danny Briere, whose assist on the winning goal gave him a series-high 11 points. "And probably their side, too, thought, 'We have the momentum. These guys are down. They're not going to get back up.' That was a little bit of an advantage. We got back up from a lot of tough situations this year. We did it again tonight."
And now, a year removed from the NHL's fewest points, a year removed from the worst record in franchise history, the Flyers won a playoff series for the first time since 2004. They will face the top-seeded Montreal Canadiens in the conference semifinals, starting Thursday.
"If you look at our season, it's been ups and downs," said defenceman Kimmo Timonen, who shadowed Ovechkin all night and helped set up Lupul's goal. "We faced a lot of difficulties during the season and this was one of them."
As much as Ovechkin and his Comeback Capitals kept finding ways to climb out of holes - a 6-14-1 start, 14th in the 15-team conference at midseason, consecutive victories to tie this series - the Flyers showed they could overcome tough situations as well.
"It's a resilient group," Stevens said.
They trailed 1-0 after less than six minutes Tuesday, when Ovechkin set up Nicklas Backstrom's goal, and they weathered being outshot 16-5 in the third period. Several members of the Flyers spoke afterward about knowing they had put aside a 10-game losing slide in February to make the playoffs.
"For some reason, we don't like to do it the easy way," defenceman Braydon Coburn said. "We like to grind it out and do it the hard way. But it's a great feeling to get this series won."
Lupul found space in front of the net to get a backhander past Cristobal Huet after Washington's goalie had deflected Timonen's shot.
"You're on a power play, the puck goes to the net, you end up banging it in, and 20 guys are ramming you into the boards," Lupul said about the celebration after his first playoff goal. "I'm still catching my breath right now. I'm sure it'll sink in here in the next couple of hours."
There were nine seconds left in the Flyers' man advantage after defenceman Tom Poti was sent off for tripping - the first penalty since the second period in a rough-and-tumble game that suited Philadelphia's style.
"To have the referee decide the series like that, with two teams battling like that, is tough to swallow. I definitely didn't think it was a penalty," Poti said.
He then made reference to Philadelphia's second goal, when a Capitals defenceman was knocked into Huet by an opponent, and said: "It's tough to beat the officials as well as the Flyers."
Washington dropped to 1-5 in Game 7s and is still waiting for its first playoff series victory since 1998, when it made it to the Stanley Cup finals. The Capitals will have to take solace in getting to the post-season for the first time since 2003, managing a remarkable turnaround under career minor league coach Bruce Boudreau, who took over for the fired Glen Hanlon on Thanksgiving with the team 6-14-1 and last in the 30-team NHL.
Led by Ovechkin, who topped the league with 65 goals and 112 points, Washington slowly climbed up the standings and won its last seven regular-season games - and 11 of its final 12 - to claim the Southeast Division championship.
"It's hard," Ovechkin said of the series loss, "but it's good experience for us."
He scored twice Monday night as Washington won at Philadelphia to force Game 7.
And Ovechkin had a hand in both of Washington's goals Tuesday, scoring to make it 2-2 about 15 1/2 minutes into the second period.
Otherwise, Biron was brilliant. He came into the game with an 0-5 record when playing on the second of consecutive nights, a statistic Stevens acknowledged was a concern before Game 7.
"I guess he answered those questions about back-to-back," Stevens said. "He was terrific. He had to be."
Biron was particularly good during the third period. With about six minutes left in regulation, he preserved the tie by throwing his body backward to beat Alexander Semin to a rebound and smother the puck.
"Every time you get a shot, you hope you can make that save, that next save, to buy your team a little time to get some bounces or to get on the offence," Biron said. "In the third period, it was all about trying to buy some time."
Notes: This was the 30th Game 7 in NHL history to go to overtime. ... Players 24 or under scored 18 of Washington's 20 goals in the series. ... After missing the first six games of the series, Flyers RW Steve Downie made his playoff debut.