VOORHEES, N.J. Some teams might be nervous about staking their title hopes on a 23-year-old rookie. Not the Philadelphia Flyers, who open the Eastern Conference semifinals against Pittsburgh tonight at First Union Center.
After all, Rhode Islander Brian Boucher allowed just eight goals in the five-game first-round triumph while outplaying Buffalo’s Dominik Hasek, the NHL’s reigning top goalie.
“I didn’t expect this from Bouch back in training camp, but he just got better and better as the season went on,” said Flyers right wing Mark Recchi. “He had the talent, and he worked hard to get here. Bouch was given more time at the end of the year, but the job wasn’t just handed to him. He grabbed it. He’s proven that he’s for real.”
Through 71 games, Boucher was a solid 14-8-3 with two shutouts and a 2.04 goals-against-average. Over the final 11 games, he was 6-2 with a 1.50 goals-against and two shutouts. So coach Craig Ramsay opted to start the playoffs with Boucher instead of John Vanbiesbrouck, 10th all-time with 358 victories and a Cup finalist with Florida in 1996.
“We just felt the kid was ready and had earned a chance,” Ramsay said. “We gave Bouch more time down the stretch to see how he would react. He looked to be cool, confident and in control. I have to give a lot of credit to John and his willingness to help the kid along. And [goalie coach] Reggie Lemelin has worked hard with Bouch.”
Ramsay, Boucher and the 36-year-old Vanbiesbrouck are also aware of the Flyers’ history in the nets. Philadelphia has reached the finals three times since its last Cup triumph and the prime goalies those years were 25-year-old Pelle Lindbergh (1985), 23-year-old rookie Ron Hextall (1987) and 27-year-old second-year-man Garth Snow (1997).
“I started the opener my rookie year, and things snowballed from there,” said Flyers scout Hextall, who won the Vezina (top goalie) and Conn Smythe (playoff MVP) trophies as a rookie. “But Bouch sort of went up the ladder [he spent the past two years in the American Hockey League after a tough third season in juniors] and slowly made himself a better player. Reggie and Beezer [Vanbiesbrouck] worked with him.
“We lost my first playoff game, 3-0 [ironically, to Vanbiesbrouck] at home to the Rangers, and everyone was saying, ‘Here we go again.’ [Philadelphia had lost to New York in the first round in 1986]. There were questions about having a rookie goalie, but I knew I was ready to play. My age wasn’t an issue. I was ready, and so is Bouch. His [quietly competitive] demeanor helps him. As long as you can deal with the hype, it’s really not that much different from the regular season.
“Bouch is quick. He’s got great poise. He’s smart. He reads the play well. I don’t think there’s any question that the Brian Boucher era has begun. Everyone in the organization is excited about it.”
Everyone except the laid-back Boucher.
“I have really enjoyed being able to contribute more, but I have never felt like it was my job,” said Boucher, Philadelphia’s top choice in the 1995 draft. “I’m just enjoying the opportunity. I know as quickly as it came, it can go just as quickly. If I have two bad games, they might make a switch. I never thought I would be in this position this year. I thought I would play 20-25 games and I would learn from one of the best goalies in the league. I didn’t feel like I was competing with John, but fortunately things have worked out for me. He has been great with me. It wasn’t like he sat me down every day and gave me lesson No. 132, but there have been a few nights where I had a tough game where he has talked to me and really helped.
“I think I’m on schedule. I figured I would play out my junior years and then play a year or two in the minors. I played two. It has been a good process. After the struggles in the minors, you appreciate it a lot more when you get here. People know that goaltenders take a bit longer to develop. You need to be in all kinds of situations. If I had been here when I was 20, it might not have worked out the same way. I’m a rookie, but I’m also a third-year pro. I feel comfortable.”
The only people discomfited by Boucher are Philadelphia’s foes.