By Sarah Kwak, SI.com
For the lovers of sport's underdogs, here was a series you could root for -- right 'til the very end. Here was Philadelphia, just a year removed from owning the absolute worst record in the NHL, whose season had more highs and lows than a mountain range. And the Capitals, whose late surge into the playoffs made them the Cinderella story of the season and their star Alexander Ovechkin a bona fide hockey hero. Even as they stared in the face of elimination for three straight games, the Caps wouldn't die. They pushed the series to seven, pushed the deciding game to overtime, but in the end, it was Philadelphia winger Joffrey Lupul, an underdog of sorts himself, who finally pushed the puck -- actually backhanded it -- into Washington's net to propel the Flyers into the second round.
Six minutes into overtime, with Philadelphia on the power play, Lupul won a crucial battle for possession after the faceoff deep in Washington's zone. Seconds later, after Capitals goalie Cristobal Huet blocked Kimmo Timonen's shot from the point, Lupul found enough space in front of the net to follow the shot and knock the rebound into the goal. He threw up his hands, reveled in his first goal of the series, his first playoff goal in two years.
Now, if there is an underdog story on a team that bullied its way through the season, it may be his. As easy as that game-winner looked, Lupul's career has been anything but. Two years ago, the winger was riding high with the Anaheim Ducks, leading the team with nine goals in 16 games during his first NHL postseason. When he was traded to Edmonton that July, the expectations for the young scorer were massive. What he produced, though, was not -- a paltry 28 points and a team-low minus-29 rating in 81 games. To think they gave up Chris Pronger for numbers like that (Edmonton also received Ladislav Smid and draft picks in the deal) made Oilers Nation let out a collective sigh of frustration. And after just one year with the Oilers, Lupul was again traded last summer to Philadelphia.
The deal barely made a splash with Flyers fans, who were too busy going goo-goo-gah-gah over free agent pickup Danny Briere to pay much attention to a guy who only scored 16 goals last season. He'd fly under the radar here, where the world didn't seem to rest on his shoulders -- or rather, on the blade of his stick. He'd let scoring take a back seat and work on playing the Flyers' physical game instead, but that, too, would take its toll on the 26-year-old forward. He sprained his wrist during training camp, and though he didn't miss any games, it slowed him early on. He scored just six goals in his first 27 games. And just when it seemed like he might be regaining his scoring touch, Lupul suffered a spinal cord contusion and concussion when he inadvertantly bore the brunt of teammate Derian Hatcher's open-ice check in an early January game. He'd return a month later, though not for very long. He'd play for just seven days before a high ankle sprain sidelined him again. Altogether, he missed 26 games this season due to injury, and yet, he still managed to earn 46 points despite it all.
Sure, it hasn't been real easy for Lupul lately. But at this moment, with the puck in the corner of Washington's net, with his hands in the air and his Philadelphia teammates swarming in around him, it most certainly is easy to enjoy.