Flyers find footing after walking playoff tight-rope

PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - After walking a wobbly tight-rope to reach the Stanley Cup finals, the Philadelphia Flyers suddenly appear on solid ground as they prepare to battle the Chicago Blackhawks for the crown.

In a post-season packed with drama and intriguing twists, Philadelphia's appearance in the finals easily qualifies as the biggest surprise of all.

If not for a shootout victory in the final game of the regular season, the Flyers would be home working on their tans and golf swings instead of packing for a visit to Chicago for Game One of the best-of-seven series on Saturday.

Making Philadelphia's playoff surge all the more remarkable was the team's ability to rally back from a 3-0 series deficit to win the Eastern Conference semi-final -- just the third team to do so -- even after trailing the decisive game 3-0.

But there was no edge-of-your-seat drama in the conference final as the Flyers brushed aside the Montreal Canadiens 4-1 to reach the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1997.

"If anything over the last 10 years in this league, you've seen eighth seeds and seventh seeds make runs and go to the finals and have an opportunity to win," Philadelphia's hulking defenseman Chris Pronger told reporters. "Just getting in, it gives you that opportunity and you've got to seize the moment.

"We've done that thus far."

After a stuttering start to the season, Philadelphia looked more likely to finish near the bottom of the standings and challenge for the top draft pick rather than a shot at ending the franchise's 35-year Stanley Cup drought.

Coach John Stevens was fired in December and replaced by Peter Laviolette, who help steer the Carolina Hurricanes to a Stanley Cup in 2006.

But the adversity continued as the Philadelphia players needed time to adjust to Laviolette's high-pressure style.

Then injuries piled up and there was a revolving door in the Flyers' net as Ray Emery and Brian Boucher both went down and opened the door for 29-year-old waiver-wire pickup Michael Leighton.

In a post-season overflowing with Cinderella storylines, Leighton's might be the best off all. The journeyman netminder has criss-crossed North America during stints with seven NHL teams and five stops in the minor leagues.

Claimed off waivers four times since 2006, Leighton returned to Philadelphia in December and has since stolen the playoff spotlight with dazzling play that included three shutouts against the Canadiens.

"It's been a long climb when you're in 29th place and you're trying to fight your way out of it," said Laviolette.

"It's been a long grind. I think in the end, it's now a strength of ours. We're a resilient group because of what we've been through."

(Writing by Steve Keating in Detroit; editing by Frank Pingue)