The Stanley Cup Playoffs are an interesting beast. Unpredictable, indescribable and enthralling to say the least. For months upon months 30 teams strive to make it there. The pool dwindles down to 16 by the end of the regular season. After that, eight, then four, then two. In the end only one will remain and be deemed worthy of the greatest prize in all of sports. We all know how it works, we all know how unpredictable it can be, we all know how thrilling it becomes with each passing game. We don’t all know what it takes to drink from Lord Stanley’s silver prize, however. But one thing is for sure, it takes more than superstars.
On every NHL team there are players whose jerseys don’t sell, sometimes they don’t even get made. These players aren’t going to have the longest autograph lines or have major networks interview them before, during and after games. They aren’t highly touted by the media, they don’t get the limelight and a lot of the times they aren’t even the good-looking ones.
However, any NHL team worth their salt has players like this that do their job and play a key role, however unpleasant or thankless it may be. The Flyers roster is chock full of players of this ilk. Players like Blair Betts, Arron Asham, and most famously, Ian Laperriere who might go unnoticed in other cities or by any other franchise.
These players all have unique and important roles to play on the team and they all do so with aplomb. The thing that makes the Flyers special, the thing that has gotten them this far in the playoffs, is that in every single game these role players go above and beyond their specific call of duty.
Arron Asham has been, almost surprisingly, stellar in this post-season. His series against New Jersey was inspiring. His quality play continued throughout the Boston series and the Montreal series, culminating in an amazing offensive performance. In all honesty, he could have walked away from game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals with a hat-trick.
The thing about Asham is that his impact on any given play can be seen better by watching his linemates, Claude Giroux and James van Riemsdyk. Like any less-talented, more physically adept player on a skilled line, Asham’s job is to give his linemates space and to work hard along the boards. Nine times out of 10, when van Riemsdyk or Giroux come away with the puck off the boards it’s because Asham was in there first, sacrificing his body, grinding it out in battle for the good of his team.
In the Flyers loss to Montreal in game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals, the van Riemsdyk-Asham-Giroux line was by far the best the Flyers had to offer. Make no mistake, that was in no small part due to the play of Asham along the boards and in the trenches.
No team has ever won the Stanley Cup without committing a penalty. Usually the players called upon to kill penalties aren’t your superstars. Sure there are exceptions, but even if you do have a two-way playing superstar, they can’t play all two minutes of each kill. That is when the call goes out to players like Blair Betts.
On top of being defensively sound, hockey smart and physically fit, Betts, a player that epitomizes a checking-line center, will give his team a pound of flesh every single game, sometimes literally. The greatest sacrifice that any player can make for his team game-in and game-out is to purposefully lay himself out in front of a slapshot from an opponent. To you or I, this thought can be quite scary and something we might shy away from. For Betts, it’s as perfunctory as breathing.
The Flyers don’t have to be skating a man down in order for Betts to shine. His work in guarding opponents scoring lines can’t be taken for granted, nor can his work in the faceoff circle. It’s not unlikely to see Betts scrounge for a puck along the boards, taking numerous sticks to the back, calves, arms, legs, come out with the puck or block a shot at the point and make a smart, safe play in order to give his goaltender a breather, or his team a much-needed line change. It’s these small plays, the chipping a puck out just shy of icing it, making a quick outlet pass to a forward gaining speed into the neutral zone, or even just knowing when to get off the ice because he’s gassed, that make Betts a pivotal player in the Flyers run for the cup.
Ian Laperriere. What hasn’t already been said about Ian Laperriere? Early in this season he won a spot in the collective heart of all Flyers fans by taking a slapshot to the face and coming back two periods later complete with stitches and a full face cage. He made a similar play in the playoffs and if someone were to make book as to whether or not he’ll do it again, no one in their right mind would bet against him.
"Lappy," as he’s known throughout the NHL, is the quintessential role player. His impact on the team can be measured statistically with blocked shots, hits, takeaways and even, at times, goals and assists. The assets that cannot be quantified are by far his most pivotal qualities.
If a playoff team doesn’t have the drive, determination and desperation to win games, they won’t. Coaches and captains may be able to inspire their teams in the locker room with pep talks, perhaps even inspire in the way that they play themselves. Some of the most inspiring feats in all of hockey don’t show up on the score sheets, box scores or even the beat columns. Ian Laperriere is the master of these plays.
There is nothing that Laperriere wouldn’t do to win any given game. He does everything that is asked of him and more. When the Wachovia Center played a highlight reel of Lappy’s handy work, it, and the reaction to it were uploaded on the Flyers site. While watching the replay my eyes weren’t drawn to the clips, the fans or even Laperriere’s humbling smile and teary eyes. My attention went to Dan Carcillo, who was shown watching the clip.
His face said everything. That is the face of a man inspired by his teammate. A role player himself, Carcillo was awestruck and energized by watching the few, of many, great plays that Laperriere has made since coming to Philadelphia at the start of this season. How could he not be? The question of what it takes to win a Stanley Cup can be answered by one name: Laperriere. If any team is ever lucky enough to get 20 players with Lappy’s resolve and work ethic, that team will quickly become a dynasty.
There are others that don the orange and black that fit this description. Ville Leino, Darroll Powe and Scott Hartnell, to name a few. It is these kinds of players that do not ever get enough credit. Their work is invaluable, yet often overlooked. Their play is inspiring, yet often unnoticed. Their names are forgotten quickly, yet live on when etched upon the holy grail of hockey, because that’s usually where they end up.