Every NHL fan knows that watching a game in person changes everything. You follow hockey differently after that. During the Stanley Cup Final, NHL.com Editor-in-Chief Bob Condor will be watching games from various locations inside the arenas in Chicago and Philadelphia -- to give the both fan and insider perspectives.
PHILADELPHIA -- The Blackhawks delivered two seismic hits in the first eight minutes of the FIRST PERIOD of Game 4 on Friday night. It started with Dustin Byfuglien living up to his bulk when he put his listed 257 pounds squarely on Philadelphia's Blair Betts. The hit occurred on the boards right at the timekeeper's spot between the penalty boxes, actually slamming the sturdy shelf of a scorer's table into the row of officials and sending Betts' stick (which had just broken the second before contact) flying in opposite directions.
"Hurt my knee on that one," said Joe Messina, who has operated the clock at the Wachovia Center since 1999. He reported the injury matter-of-factly to scorekeeper Augie Conte and kept his eyes to the ice.
Byfuglien's hit registered a 104 decibel reading from the NHL.com Stanley Cup Final Sound Meter, which was being held five feet away -- right behind Messina and Conte. That measurement equates to a train roaring past your ears, which is how Ville Leino likely felt moments later -- except he felt the impact of the decibels, too. Almost in the same spot, Chicago defenseman Brian Campbell crumpled Leino, who took a kneeling eight-count of sorts before rising and skating gingerly to the Philadelphia bench.
Honestly, there at ice-level four feet from the board of impact, Byfuglien's rattles the jaws of onlookers and the collision leaves you jostling your head to see that everything is in working order.
At the post-game news conference, Leino reported he "got the wind knocked out of me" and admitted to having some back spasms as well. He went to the dressing room for a short while to get treatment -- then, of course, returned to eventually score the game-winner and series-tying goal.
But the game's decisive physicality? During the SECOND PERIOD, when Chris Pronger, the Flyers' defensive menace (in pretty every sense of the word so far, on- and off-ice at the Final), harassed Canadian Olympic teammate (oh, well, so much for nationalism) and Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews. Sure, Pronger hit Toews at least four different times in the period, but more to the annoying point, the Flyers' D-man bumped, struck, hipped, shoved, power-lifted, whacked, steered, squeezed and spindled in various locations between center ice and the Philly goal line.
On the most telling sequence during a period in which Chicago outshot the Flyers, 15-10, Pronger upended Patrick Kane high off the right cycle in the Philly defensive zone. Not satisfied, Pronger skated on back to the net so he could push Toews hard into the goal post and crossbar, pinning the Hawks' 22-year-old leader for a couple of extra seconds.
During a neutral-zone encounter, Pronger didn't rattle the boards or boost the decibel meter, but instead disrupted a previously flying Toews, slowing things to a crawl that possibly reminded Chicago fans of creeping along in their cars on the Kennedy or Dan Ryan expressways.
Pronger's mid-ice defensive clinic was staged, naturally on this night, right in front of the scorekeeper's table. Pronger's facial expression didn't change one micro-muscle; he looked like a guy who has done this hundreds of times in a Final (and he has) and a veteran who will do it again as many times as necessary to put down the sticks and lift the Cup. Impressive, efficient and, for Toews and Kane, frustrating all at once.
Not that the Flyers weren't hitting people, or trying to. Philadelphia misses its checks sometimes -- Mike Richards and Ian Laperriere seem to lead the team in slamming themselves into the boards -- but it is not for lack of effort. What the whole let's-hit-people-even-if-we-might-miss approach accomplishes is a territorial warning to opponents, in this case, Chicago: Come over your own blue line at your own risk. To steal from old-time hockey adages, the Blackhawks looked like they were skating uphill at times, especially in the game's first 30 minutes.
It was not an accident that Chicago scored its second goal during a 5-on-3 advantage in the THIRD PERIOD, which seemed to loosen up Chicago's skill players a bit. Open space has been scarce for the Blackhawks in this series, at least here at the Wachovia Center. Chicago coach Joel Quenneville offered optimism about returning to home ice, where his team has found fast starts more frequently than not. As soon as he mentioned going back home, he stressed the importance of getting a lead rather than repeating Friday's two-goal deficit at the end of one period.
One thing was certain on this night, upthisclose at ice level: Big hits make big noise, but little things like harassing a team's skating patterns and passing lanes is what wins the day. We'll see if it wins the series.