Danny Briere steps it up
PITTSBURGH -- As incongruous as it might have seemed, dotted around the Consol Energy Center on Wednesday night were a number of fans decked out not in Pittsburgh Penguins paraphernalia, but in bear costumes.
That's right, bear costumes.
They were dressed so in the hopes of taunting Philadelphia Flyers netminder Ilya Bryzgalov who, when asked about the danger the Pittsburgh Penguins represent in their first-round playoff series, insisted that Penguins are not to be feared and that he fears only the bear in the forest.
"I saw a few bears in the stands but they didn't come out of the woods or the forest. We were OK," Flyers forward Daniel Briere said with a broad smile in a buoyant locker room after the Flyers had improbably erased a 3-0 first-period deficit to defeat the Penguins 4-3 in overtime.
Although it was Jakub Voracek who sealed the comeback, poking home a rebound at the side of the Penguins' net just 2:23 into overtime, the fact that the bears and the Penguins were held at bay in Game 1 was a testament to Briere's gumption.
Laid low by a clean but devastating hit by Pittsburgh's Joe Vitale in the now-infamous regular-season coaches-clash game between the two teams April 1, Briere was unable to play in the Flyers' last three regular-season games.
His availability for Game 1 on Wednesday night was in doubt until earlier in the day.
Not only did he play, Briere was instrumental in keeping the never-say-die Flyers alive, scoring the first Philadelphia goal early in the second period and adding a second midway through the third period to draw the Flyers to within one.
Asked if he was 100 percent, Briere smiled.
"Yeah, I'm 100 percent. I felt really good. Overnight, I got a lot better," he said.
Whatever pain Briere might have suffered, a win like this one will no doubt be a welcome salve. Not that he is any stranger to such heroics.
The soft-spoken native of Gatineau, Quebec, has forged a reputation in recent years as one of the game's clutch postseason performers. He led the NHL in playoff scoring when the Flyers advanced to the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs.
And while he struggled offensively this season, recording just 49 points, and only once during a 29-game span, he delivered mightily at a crucial moment once again.
"I thought that he was terrific. Everybody got going; certainly his line was good," head coach Peter Laviolette said.
"As far as Danny goes and his game, he's done it his whole career," he said. "He's done it so many times in the playoffs I don't think it should surprise anybody that he had a big night."
Not even the fact that replays showed Briere's first goal, a clean break off a turnover near the Pittsburgh blue line, was at least a foot offside could wipe the grin from his face. In fact, when it was mentioned to him that the play should have been whistled dead, that grin seemed to grow by two feet.
"In my mind I was good, so " he said, laughing.
"I had no clue because I felt I was way behind the play," he explained. "All I was thinking, I put my head down and trying to skate back as hard as I could."
Pittsburgh head coach Dan Bylsma refused to use the fact that Briere's first of two goals was offside as an excuse for his team's blowing a three-goal lead.
"That's not why we lost the game," he said.
Instead, he said, the Flyers dictated the play in the final two periods and the Penguins got away from the puck-possession style that served them so well in the first period.
"The last two periods of hockey was too much of back-and-forth and not really managing the puck in the neutral zone the way we need to to play our game," Bylsma said. "We allowed them to play on the aggressive side of the game and the forecheck."
If this kind of spring performance has become Briere's trademark, this type of game has also become something of a repeating cycle for the Flyers themselves.
The win marked the 11th comeback from a deficit of two or more goals in games in which the Flyers collected at least one point this season. Counting Wednesday's game, the Flyers have now given up the first goal 47 times but managed to collect wins in 21 of those games, tops in the league.
"It's pretty amazing. Sitting here after the first period, all we were saying is 'We've done it all year, let's start with a goal and you never know what can happen.' But to make it happen in a hostile environment is a special feeling. You can't dwell on that, it's one game, you've got to move on, but I think for a few minutes it's OK to appreciate what we just did," Briere said.
"At the same time, we have to find a way to rectify that," he added. "This is the playoffs -- we're not going to come back from two or three goals every single game, so we'll take it tonight, but let's get better, let's be better at weathering the storm in Game No. 2 in the first period."
It's only one game, but the story arc of this one suggests a dramatic swing in emotions. The Penguins dominated the first period, scoring with 36.9 seconds left to take a 3-0 lead and prompt speculation that Laviolette might pull Bryzgalov.
Instead, Bryzgalov was solid the rest of the way and ended a personal five-game playoff losing streak.
And so instead of the bears celebrating in the aisles in Pittsburgh, the more experienced Penguins -- a team favored by many to the win the Cup -- will be forced to prove all of that experience has value and even the series Friday night.