As tonight's Islanders-Flyers game unfolded, I couldn't help but think I'd seen it somewhere before.
The game reminded me of another battle, one that also involved the fighting city of Philadelphia. Only in this game, the Islanders were reminiscent of Philadelphian Rocky Balboa, while the Flyers played the role of Apollo Creed. The Flyers, not unlike Creed, appeared to think they'd coast to victory without putting in any work. And why wouldn't they? The Islanders, after all, had just played the night before in Detroit. That they squeaked out a victory over the defending Stanley Cup champions is irrelevant. The Islanders would be sore and tired; in a season like the one the Islanders have had, it'd be perfectly understandable.
Nobody bothered to tell any of this to the Islanders, who came into the game with nothing to lose - just like Rocky. And just like Rocky, the Islanders started out with a bang, scoring in the first period. Only the NHL's rule to only count goals that are in the net at the buzzer (as opposed to shots that are taken before buzzer, but go in after) prevented this from being a 2-0 game at the first intermission. Not only were the Islanders winning, but they were more than holding their own against the Flyers, who desperately needed the two points.
I imagine the scene in the Flyers' dressing room to be identical to the scene in Apollo Creed's corner after the first round. Apollo's trainer asks what happened, then delivers the words that say it all:
"He doesn't know it's a damn show. He thinks it's a damn fight. Now finish this bum, and let's go home."
Apollo woke up. So did the Flyers. The Islanders got a quick goal to start the second, perhaps the hockey gods' way of making up for the missed opportunity at the end of the first. But the goal woke the Flyers up, and the Broad Street Bullies started swinging. Daniel Carillo took on Nate Thompson. Exactly one second later, Riley Cote fought Joel Rechlicz to a minute-plus standoff, with both players landing some major punches. And you could hear the bell ring and watch the referee and trainers separate Rocky and Apollo at the end of Round 2. Cue "Going The Distance" - you could tell it was going to be a war.
The period maintained its chippy status, and as the second period would down and the third period began, the Flyers started to play hockey again. Eventually, they started to wear down their inferior opponents. And just like Apollo knocked Rocky down in the 14th round, the Islanders were dealt a knock-down blow of their own - three goals in 3:55 of game time.
You could almost imagine the Islanders on the canvas flailing, trying their best to get up. Mickey tells Rocky to stay down. Islanders fans figured it was over, that their impressive run had to run out sometime, and it may as well be now; no sense earning points that could jeopardize the first overall pick. But the underdog doesn't listen to reason, just to the challenge ahead of him. Rocky rose and hit Apollo so hard that the defending champion spits up blood. The Islanders scored a goal 32 seconds later to tie the score. With nothing to lose, there was no way they were going to stay down.
When Rocky and Apollo squared off in Round 15, the final round, it was a cautious meeting of two exhausted fighters who simply wanted to survive. The overtime between the Islanders and Flyers played out in a similar fashion. Both teams had their chances, but it was a draw and it was meant to end as such. The Flyers won the shootout. Apollo got the decision. None of it matters.
Ain't gonna be no rematch.
Don't want one.
For the Islanders, these past two nights were their Stanley Cup Final. They knocked off Detroit in their home stadium, traveled overnight, and took the Flyers, a legitimate Cup contender, to the brink just 24 hours later. That's a tremendous amount to be proud of. No matter what happens with the draft, this is the team the Islanders are going to be next season - tireless and with plenty of fight, with just enough skill to compete every night. If they land John Tavares, great. If they get a big-time free agent, even better. The moral of the story is, the Islanders finally have an identity, and if they can fight this hard with the odds stacked against them in a meaningless game, imagine what they can do when things are going their way.