The Chicago Blackhawks were unable to get solid play when needed, and it opened the door for the Philadelphia Flyers to tie the Stanley Cup Final series up at 2 heading back to Chicago on Sunday.
The often praised defense of the Western Conference Champions was no where to be found last night, and the chemistry that usually ignites this explosive offense was also M.I.A until it was too late. In a play that would be a microcosm of the entire game, Mike Richards stole the puck from Niklas Hjalmarsson while Tomas Kopecky was in the penalty box on a questionable high-sticking call. After Richards stripped Hjalmarsson of the puck, he batted a quick, shifty backhander into the net on a shot that caught goaltender Antti Niemi by surprise. He opened the scoring less than five minutes into the game.
Penalties were a major issue for the Blackhawks, and although they only allowed the lone Richards power play goal, their star offensive weapons were kept off the ice during six penalty kills. However, even while on the ice, the normally potent Blackhawks offense seemed to disappear. Passes were forced and made too often, and juicy rebounds were left open for the Flyers to clear.
Hjalmarsson would again be the main culprit of a Flyers goal when he failed to clear the rebound of a bad-angle Claude Giroux shot and Matt Carle jumped into the play to deposit the puck into an empty net. Michael Leighton would let in a Patrick Sharp floater with 1:30 left in the first period, but the Flyers scored again before the period ended when Giroux was left open next to the net. He put a Kimmo Timonen pass into the back of the net while Niemi was positioned at the edge of his crease for Timonen’s shot. After that goal, the spirit was taken out of the Blackhawks.
The second period was scoreless and uneventful, as was the first half of the third period. Niemi continued to make spectacular saves to keep his team in the game, and his team contuned to return the favor with a defense with holes the size of Texas and constant turnovers. For 40 minutes in the middle of this game, the Blackhawks left their goalie out to dry, and that is probably the most disappointing aspect of this loss.
The Blackhawks would need a 5-on-3 with 8 minutes to go in order to spark their offense. They tried to make the comeback, but fell just short when Duncan Keith failed to control the puck at the blue line, allowing Jeff Carter to ice the game with an empty netter with 36.6 seconds left in the game. The final score was 5-3.
The Philadelphia Flyers played exactly the kind of game they need to in order to win this series. They were opportunistic, they forced Chicago to slow down their game, and they were tough while being disciplined. Chicago is still searching for a way to let their stars break out, although the line of Dustin Byfuglien, Jonathan Toews, and Patrick Kane was much better tonight than it has been throughout most of this series. Byfuglien was still silent, and actually had a couple of egregious giveaways, but Kane and Toews controlled the puck in the offensive zone and kept pressure on both the Flyers’ defense and goaltender. They primed to break out.
Game 4 is always a momentum swing in a series, and last night was no different. Instead of being up 3-1, the Blackhawks’ overall sloppy play allowed the Flyers’ fans one last chance to see their team play inside Wachovia Center. Now they must try to take the momentum they began to build in the game’s dying minutes back home to the United Center and win what is now a best-of-three series.
A team is not in trouble until it loses at home, and while the Flyers must steal a game in Chicago, the Blackhawks only need to win out at home in order to lift their first Stanley Cup since 1961.