The Flyers stormed into the Eastern Conference finals behind elusive center Daniel Brière, whose game-winning goals silenced a taunting Montreal crowd
Minutes after his Flyers eliminated the Canadiens in the fifth game of the Eastern Conference semifinals last Saturday, Philadelphia center Daniel Brière passed through the handshake line and sought out Montreal coach Guy Carbonneau, who had stayed on the ice to wait for him. The two embraced and exchanged fond wishes before separating. Then they hugged again as the coach cupped the diminutive center on the back of the head. "It was special for both of us," said Brière, the western Quebec native who last July turned down a comparable offer from the Canadiens to sign an eight-year, $52 million free-agent contract with Philadelphia. "It was really important to close that book with good words between us, because so many words around us were not good."
Consider the howls that cascaded from the Montreal crowd each time the speedy, shifty Brière touched the puck at the Bell Centre -- until he and the Flyers silenced them for good. In helping Philadelphia dispatch the favored Habs and advance to play the Pittsburgh Penguins in its first Eastern Conference finals since 2004, Brière continued a stellar postseason. Entering the finals he led the NHL with five power-play goals and was tied for second with 14 points.
Brière's three playoff game-winners included a pair against Montreal, whose fans felt he had spurned his home province. The vitriol even transcended Quebec's linguistic divide. The English language Montreal Gazette branded him "public enemy number one" before the series. A columnist in the French language La Presse guessed that fans might "vomit copiously" upon seeing him.
Asked last week about the treatment, Brière smiled and pretended to pull the back of his shirt forward to check the spelling. "Really, my name is Boo?" he said. "They are passionate fans, great fans. I take it as a compliment that they wanted me here."
The fit seemed logical. Brière grew up a bleu, blanc et rouge fanatic (even though his hometown of Gatineau is a few miles outside Ottawa), and when his contract with the Sabres was up, the Canadiens were prepared. They arranged for Brière, who had led Buffalo in scoring during the regular season (95 points) and in the playoffs (15), to meet with Habs legend Jean Béliveau. They also offered a menu of enticements, including help with finding a house near the sprawling greenspace of Parc du Mont-Royal and a good school for his three sons, now nine, eight and seven.
But Brière saw a greater advantage to signing with the Flyers, who had nowhere to go but up. After finishing with an NHL-worst 56 points and missing the playoffs for the first time since 1994, they had acquired forward Scott Hartnell and defenseman Kimmo Timonen to complement a young nucleus that included forwards Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. Brière's good friend goalie Martin Biron had also spoken highly of his organization since being traded there from Buffalo in February 2007.
Although he says that he found no negatives to playing in Montreal (and emphatically denies reports that he insisted on a guarantee that he would skate on the club's top line), Brière revels in the manageable celebrity afforded him in Philadelphia. In his suburb of Haddonfield, N.J., he can go out for ice cream with his boys and not be recognized, or play mini hockey outside with them and not be bothered. "Sometimes he lets them win; sometimes not," Daniel's wife, Sylvie, said from their home last week. "Sometimes it's like I have four boys. I think the normal dad life is a great balance for him."
How could a villain be so boyish and likable, anyway? Two days after he signed, Brière approached Flyers G.M. Paul Holmgren at the club's training facility in Voorhees, N.J., to thank the club for taking a chance on him. Holmgren gaped at the reigning All-Star Game MVP. "You're thanking me for taking a chance on you?" he said.
Brière, listed very generously as 5' 10" (and 180 pounds) in Philadelphia's media guide, quickly endeared himself to the Flyers' faithful with a game-winner in his debut; with his website, Brierebunch. com, which raises funds for numerous charities; and with a popular ad campaign featuring Brière shooting pucks through local factory windows. For several weeks after he signed, his number 48 jersey was the NHL's top seller. But when his linemate Simon Gagné went down with a season-ending concussion in February, Brière struggled to find his rhythm with a series of wingers. (Biron attributed the slump to the fact that the baby-faced Brière "has to work on his playoff beard before everyone else.") At the trade deadline, though, the Flyers picked up Vaclav Prospal from the Tampa Bay Lightning. Skating with Prospal, a winger with speed and skills to match his own, and Hartnell, a rugged cornerman, Brière had points in 14 of his last 15 regular-season games, then added an NHL-high 11 points in Philadelphia's first-round, seven-game victory over the Washington Capitals.
Still, the Habs were another matter. They had swept Philly in four season meetings and rallied from 3-2 down in the final 29 seconds to steal Game 1 at the Bell Centre. After that loss, the 30-year-old Brière took aside some younger Flyers, telling them he had seen teams rebound from comparable defeats as a Sabre.
This was the Brière whom Biron refers to as "the leader and stubborn warrior." Put on waivers by the Phoenix Coyotes in 2000 because he was too small, Brière has built strength by lifting tires and boulders with international strongman Hugo Girard. "People underestimate him until they challenge him to do something," Biron says.
Brière's goals won Games 2 and 4; the latter score, a quick wrist shot off a rebound, broke a 2-2 tie with 3:38 to play. "You can't treat him like a normal guy," says Canadiens goalie Carey Price. "He just doesn't need as much time or space as other guys to make a play. You think he's not in a dangerous position, and then the puck's behind you."
Now Brière is trying to get past the dangerous Penguins and deliver Philadelphia to its first finals appearance since 1997. He's also facing another daunting challenge. "Can he [finally] grow this thing?" asks Biron, stroking his own cheek. "Or maybe he's gonna need two more rounds."