The day the Hurricanes fired Peter Laviolette.
The man responsible for presenting a Stanley Cup to a region that knew only of the Sprint Cup lost his job in a move akin to the Patriots replacing Bill Belichick after that 9-7 season in 2002. Even in a league infamous for flash-paper patience, where coach is not only not king but too often target, wearing the expiration date of organic milk, it was egregious.
The fact that Peter Laviolette wondered if he would ever coach again shows that on the scale of stature, the NHL coach ranks somewhere between the rapping weatherman and the odd-looking fish in the tank at the front of the Chinese restaurant. And yet, here are the Flyers back alive again in a series, willing their way through an epic postseason, many thanks to the stewardship of Laviolette.
Blackhawks vs. Flyers Series Page
Throughout the playoffs, he's pushed more right buttons than Boss. The timeout in the deciding game of the Boston series is already lore, and let us never forget that this team qualified for the playoffs on the last shot (of a shootout) of the regular season. On Wednesday night, down 0-2 to the Blackhawks, superbly coached by Joel Quenneville, by the way, the Flyers faced another life game and survived on a deflected shot in overtime.
Apparently, as Laviolette suggested of seventh games following the finale against the Bruins, Game Threes are also for men.
And he can give a lesson on how to lead them.
"I'm not sensing a lot of pressure," he said prior to Game 3. "I'm not seeing that from our guys. I don't see it in the interviews. I don't see it on the ice. I don't see it in the locker room. We're a loose group. We're really comfortable where we're at right now. We're comfortable here because we've been here too many times. We've been in a situation since Christmas where it's been time to pack it in. Everybody just go home, call it a year. And yet we're still here. It's the beginning of June. We're pretty happy to be here. And the guys won't quit. They just won't. That's why I sit here confident about ability to win a hockey game."
He also speaks that way, brimming with conviction.
"The unbelievable turnaround by this team stems back to Laviolette," remarked former great Jeremy Roenick, now an analyst for NBC. "It's how much he believes in this team. He talks to them that way. He tells them how much he believes in them and the players get excited. He made them believe in themselves night in, night out."
Let's begin in Chicago, where a game of pond hockey erupted in the series opener, leaving his upstart goalie, Michael Leighton, lost on a lake. Laviolette pulled him to save him. Leighton, a journeyman who long ago went 8-21 for the Blackhawks and has now suddenly, seemingly evolved into a frontline goalie, allowed five goals on 20 shots, and was replaced in the second period by Brian Boucher.
Talk late that Saturday night had the Flyers' top brass considering a switch to Boucher in Game 2. But Laviolette steadfastly stood behind Leighton. The coach had saved his goalie's head once before, in that Game 7 when Leighton got blitzed for three quick goals by the Bruins in the first period and Laviolette offered him a psyche salvation.
Just imagine the game scoreless, he told him.
And don't give up anymore.
Entering Game 2, Laviolette wanted to cool the pace and ratchet physicality, so he moved gritty, dastardly Daniel Carcillo back into the starting lineup and sat young James van Riemsdyk, who disappeared in the first game under the subplot hype of the matchup between top picks in the 2007 draft. Van Riemsdyk was selected second by the Flyers, behind Chicago star Patrick Kane.
"When (his players) do something wrong, he'll kick them in the ass," Roenick said. "He'll let them know about it with a lot of force. He's very stern in his belief in his system. He'll also pat them on the back when they need it."
The Blackhawks are big and fast and talented, for sure, but the first three games of the series have brought one common denominator: The Flyers played the spritely team in the third period. In Game 2, it took a heroic effort by Hawks goalie Antti Niemi to keep the game finished at 2-1, and the Flyers controlled much of the overtime period the other night, finally catching the wilting Hawks on an ill-fated line-change to set up the game-winner.
That's Laviolette's system.
Play with pace. Forecheck hard.
Push it, pressure it, a five-man unit playing the puck. Hard.
When Laviolette first took over for the fallen John Stevens in December, the Flyers sunk further. They were 2-7 in his first nine games. They were ragged on the ice and they slumped at the bench. He cursed their conditioning, and they cursed back.
Laviolette pushed harder. And now they're here, the mutual admiration flowing freely.
"He's very intense on the game," said assistant coach Craig Berube. "The season changed when he took over. There was a lot of skating in practices. Right away, the flow was amped up. He got the team to skate hard in practice. Through that dry spell we weren't in the shape to play the system. We weren't on the same page because of that. But it all clicked at the right time. Guys are there now."
And they're here now, thus far, oddly following the same script as last year's Penguins. Midway through the season, Pittsburgh fired coach Michel Therrien and replaced him with Dan Bylsma. The Penguins surged toward the end of the season, beat the Flyers in the first round of the playoffs, upended the Capitals in seven games and swept Carolina to set up a Cup rematch with the Red Wings.
The Penguins also lost the first two games of the series on the road in Detroit. They returned to Pittsburgh and won the next two, and wound up winning the title in Game 7 in Detroit.
Dating back to Flyers' captain Mike Richards embracing the Prince of Wales Trophy the way Sidney Crosby did – a superstitious no-no to some, blasphemy to others – a Pennsylvania sequel could be playing out this spring.
All the while, Laviolette pushes his team forward. And he does so in this stoic manner, with the piercing manner. His calm appears constantly on the verge of combustion, and it never happens, though there was that one fleeting moment late in the first period of Game 3, following that charging call on Carcillo, Laviolette balled his fist and pounded the glass twice with the side of his hand. He paused. And he rapped it once more to convey his displeasure.
His players perked on cue.
Earlier that day, I wonder if he rapped his windshield. Laviolette was stuck in traffic on I-295 in South Jersey because of an accident leading into nearby Philadelphia. The coach didn't arrive the Wachovia until shortly after 6 p.m., more than hour later than he usually arrives for an 8 o'clock start.
Friday, traffic in South Philadelphia will be worse. The Phillies play that night, with Roy Halladay pitching for the first time since his perfect game. But for now, the unlikely gift of this season, plays on in a town still dressed in Halloween colors.
And they're quoting him now, Coach Peter, who wasn't even here at the start of the year.
Coach Peter, who by all rights, shouldn't be here at all, but still coaching in ungrateful Raleigh.
Right now, Broad Street says thanks.