Down 0-2 to arguably the most talented team in the National Hockey League and facing two must-win games on your home ice to keep your Stanley Cup hopes alive? Not a problem.
The Philadelphia Flyers handled their end of the bargain last night as their 5-3 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks allowed them to even up their series at two games a piece. The Flyers also took Game Three in dramatic fashion, with Claude Giroux scoring the winner in overtime to bring the series to 2-1 Chicago. The series was 2-0 heading into Philadelphia, as the Blackhawks also held serve on their home ice, taking Games One and Two in the United Center. The Flyers knew a Game Four loss could potentially end their season, as they’d be staring down a 3-1 series deficit with Chicago having the opportunity to win the Stanley Cup on home ice in Game Five. That is no longer the case.
Instead, this series will at least go six games, and to many experts, now seems destined for a seventh and decisive game next Friday night in Chicago. Of course, the result of Game Five will largely dictate the possibility of a Game Seven. For now however, it’s all about what happened in Game Four to get this series even.
An old face returned to the Flyers line-up in Game Four, as James van Riemsdyk took back Dan Carcillo’s spot in the Flyers’ line-up. Some new faces made their way into the Chicago line-up, as Andrew Ladd returned from an upper-body injury he sustained in Game Four of the Western Conference Final and Nick Boynton played in his first playoff game in five years, replacing Jordan Hendry on the Blackhawks’ blue-line. The ‘Hawks new additions were a plus to their new strategy: heavy neutral zone pressure on the Flyers and continue to force turnovers. While the ‘Hawks strategy was effective, the Flyers continuously had answers for Chicago.
Andrew Ladd welcomed himself to the game and the series by promptly taking an undisciplined interference penalty just 36 seconds into the contest, effectively putting the Flyers on the power play. While Chicago did kill off the penalty, the early damage was certainly done, and the Flyers had established a flow to their liking early on. After killing the penalty, some great back and forth action followed, with Chicago suddenly seeming to get their way with the flow of play. It wasn’t long however, before the Blackhawks took another stupid penalty and put the Flyers back on the powerplay. This time, the Orange and Black made them pay. With a little over fifteen minutes to play in the first, Niklas Hjarlmarsson looked to clear the puck from his end on the penalty kill. He was stripped of the puck on a great hustle play by Mike Richards, who immediately swung to the front of the net, and sent a backhander in on an off-guard Antti Niemi. Niemi let the puck slip through his five-hole and Richards gave the Flyers the 1-0 lead in the game.
The remainder of the first period was very back and forth, save a few chances here and there that either Niemi and Michael Leighton each turned away. The period appeared to be heading to intermission 1-0 Flyers, until a crazy final five minutes totally opened up the scoring. Matt Carle scored on another defensive zone turnover by Hjarlmarsson, as he deposited the puck into an empty net with a little over five minutes left in the first. Just four minutes later, a bouncing puck in the Philadelphia end found its way to Patrick Sharp who let fly with a slap-shot from the slot, beating Michael Leighton after the puck hit a few bodies on its way in and making the game 2-1 Flyers. An uneasy feeling came over the Wachovia Center. However, just 51 seconds later, the Flyers answered back. With only 37 seconds left in the first period, Scott Hartnell, Kimmo Timonen, and Claude Giroux played a little tick-tack-toe and Giroux completed the slam dunk to deposit the puck into the back of the net and give the Flyers a very important goal and very important 3-1 lead heading into the first intermission.
The second period was scoreless, but it certainly didn’t lack intensity. Up and down action followed, with three penalties being called on Chicago in the period, and one penalty being called on Philadelphia. The Blackhawks held control of the shot totals in the second, much like they did in the first. In the second frame, shots were 13-10 Chicago, and in the first, the ‘Hawks lead 11-8. Still, although the pressure was there from Chicago, Michael Leighton stood tall for the Flyers. Leighton wasn’t excellent in this game, but he made a few saves that we’re pretty incredible, and he got the win, so it’s important to give credit where it’s due. Antti Niemi, on the other hand, finally showed his true colors. Pucks at the net and pressure in front will expose true weaknesses of any goaltender, especially one that, as I said earlier, was just getting flat-out lucky in making saves. Don’t get me wrong, Niemi’s a strong netminder and the likelihood of the ‘Hawks being in the position their in without him is definitely in doubt, but pucks that he had no business stopping – let alone seeing – just seemed to hit him the first three games. Not so much last night.
In the third, the Flyers got an incredibly fortuitous bounce off Kris Versteeg’s back on a Ville Leino wrister to give them what appeared at the time to be an insurmountable 4-1 lead. The Blackhawks didn’t give up though, and thanks to two marginal calls on the Flyers with under ten minutes left, the ‘Hawks were awarded a 5 on 3 power play. It took them all of about 20 seconds before Dave Bolland made the score 4-2 in favor of Philadelphia. The Flyers fortunately were able to kill of the remaining part of the 5 on 4, but the ‘Hawks had taken over the game at that point. About four minutes later, a Brian Campbell wrister hit just about every player on the ice before trickling past Michael Leighton to make the game 4-3 and Flyers fans immediately started to get very nervous. The Flyers, however, withstood a remarkable onslaught from the Blackhawks in the final four and a half minutes, getting some big takeaways in the defensive zone accompanied by some huge saves from Leighton. The Flyers fortunes changed for the better when a rebound off a Patrick Sharp shot hopped over the stick of Duncan Keith at the ‘Hawks blue line, springing Jeff Carter loose on a breakaway at an empty net, as Chicago had pulled Niemi for the extra attacker. Carter scored his first goal of the series to make it 5-3 Flyers and seal the deal to even this series back up at two a piece.
Now, the pressure shifts back to Chicago, who will need to find a way to take Game Five at home. We all know the last thing any player on the Blackhawks wants to do is come back to Philadelphia with their season on the line. Let’s hope the Flyers can make that exactly the scenario tomorrow night.