MONTREAL -- The Philadelphia Flyers flatlined in the first period for the third time in a row in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Montreal Canadiens. This time, they paid the price.
After being bailed out of bad starts by goalie Michael Leighton in the first two games, the Flyers were outplayed once again in the first 20 minutes in Game 3 on Thursday night. The cost: two goals allowed and a 5-1 loss before a fired-up Bell Centre crowd of 21,273.
Bad start No. 3 left the Flyers shaking their heads after they saw their lead in the series shrink to 2-1.
"You can't practice having good starts to a game," a distraught captain Mike Richards said. "It's being mentally focused and being prepared. I guess I'll take responsibility, being the leader and captain on this team. We were not ready to play, and it's got to change in a hurry."
The Canadiens ripped off 17 shots, the most by either team in any period in the series, during the opening 20 minutes. The only difference in Game 3 was -- instead of entering the first intermission down by a goal, the crease-crashing Canadiens left the ice with a 2-0 lead.
"I won't say it was embarrassing," Flyers forward Simon Gagne said of his team's first-period struggles. "But that's certainly not our best one. They came very hard at us the first 20 minutes, and that's something we expected. We were hoping for 0-0 after 20 minutes, but it was 2-0 and from that point on, they took over.
"It's playoff hockey -- you have to be ready," Gagne continued. "That's not up the coach. We were well prepared by him, and each one of us had to be ready for the game and we didn't do it. Now we have to find a way."
The strong start gave the Canadiens and their hockey-crazed fans just the momentum they needed to cut their series deficit in half. They'll try to even the series on Saturday afternoon at Bell Centre.
The Habs outshot the Flyers in the first of Game 1 (13-6) and Game 2 (16-6), but had little to show for it on the scoreboard -- falling behind 1-0 on both occasions. That didn't seem to discourage Les Habitants on Thursday, as they continued to fire away on Leighton, who lost for the first time in five career playoff starts.
"It wasn't necessarily what they did, but what we didn't do," said a hoarse Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger, who was on the ice for Montreal's first four goals. "We didn't play well defensively and left Leights out to dry a few times. They played better and skated harder."
Fellow defenseman Kimmo Timonen agreed.
"We knew they going to come out hard -- it was a big game for them," Timonen said. "They jumped out 2-0 after one period and, in the last three games, we haven't played at the level we're supposed to play. You never want to say that was a good loss, but maybe that was a good loss for us. We have to know that this is not us. We have to play way better than we've been playing last three games, especially at the start."
Not only did the Canadiens finally dent the previously impenetrable Leighton, but they also got the best of Pronger and his defensive partner, Matt Carle, who finished a collective minus-6.
"I don't think you want to forget (a game like this)," said Pronger, whose giveaway led to Tom Pyatt's first-period goal. "I think you use it and feed off it. You can call it a wakeup call if you want. We need to understand it's going to take a lot more than what we just showed out there (Thursday) to be successful. They are a team that has shown a lot of resilience throughout the playoffs and (Thursday) was no different. They answered the bell and now it's our turn to do the same in Game 4."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale