With the series tied at two wins apiece and the Flyers feeling pretty good about themselves -- having won the previous two games and had the better of play for a majority of the previous three -- Sunday night in the United Center the Flyers saw and felt and were overwhelmed by the Chicago Blackhawks' best.
The questions facing the Flyers going into Wednesday night's win-or-play-no-more Game 6 back at Philly's Wachovia Center are these:
Were they so shocked and awed by what the Blackhawks unleashed that they can't respond?
Even if they do respond, is the Flyers' best no match for the Blackhawks'?
It's probably not hard to guess what a cross-section of Flyers had to say Tuesday afternoon when asked those questions. This is, after all, a group of men who have laughed in the face of elimination so many times that their sides ache.
These Flyers stared down a third-period deficit and eventually prevailed in a shootout against Henrik Lundqvist and the New York Rangers just to make the playoffs on the last day of the regular season. They overwhelmed Martin Brodeur and the Devils in the first round and beat a previously-scalding and seemingly-destined Jaroslav Halak and the Canadiens in the Eastern Final.
In between, in the Eastern semis against Boston, the Flyers merely did the historically almost-impossible: They became just the third team in NHL history and only the fourth in the combined history of the three major professional North American team sports that contest playoff series to come back from a 3-0 series deficit. In fact, they did so even upon falling behind 3-0 in Game 7.
This is not a bunch that scares easily. But then, even while running that gauntlet, the Flyers never faced anything as daunting as the fury with which the Blackhawks attacked them in Game 5.
"They might have come out and played their best first period of the series -- I don't want to take that away from them," Flyers checking center Blair Betts said. "But no one in here is worried about it. We're more worried about what we did to let them gain that kind of momentum. We feel like we're one win away from forcing a game where anything can happen."
The Blackhawks were in just such a situation for the first four games – just one game away from a game in which anything might happen if they just played the way they had against Vancouver in the Western semis and in sweeping San Jose in the Western Final. Game 5 of the Final was that game.
Rather than serving as a sign of weakness, coach Joel Quenneville's decision to break up his top line and put Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Dustin Byfuglien on three different lines enabled the Hawks to come at the Flyers in dangerous waves. And with all six defensemen pinching as if they had begun the game in a three-goal hole – the same way, in fact, that they did when they rallied from 4-1 down late in Game 4 to pull within a goal before running out of comeback time -- the Blackhawks turned the game into a half-ice game. Not in the sense that it was static, but rather in the sense that the puck rarely left the Flyers' half of the ice.
It was impressive to watch -- and watching was about all the Flyers could do as the Blackhawks won nearly every physical battle and race to a loose puck. Michael Leighton and some desperate shot-blocking stemmed the tide for a while. But the scoreboard quickly caught up with the territorial dominance when Brent Seabrook, Dave Bolland and Kris Versteeg scored goals in a 5:58 span late in the first period to drive Leighton from the net.
The Flyers consoled themselves with only being outscored 4-3 the rest of the way -- with the last of those Chicago goals coming into an empty net. In reality, though, the Hawks pretty much dominated once again and scored a comeback-precluding goal whenever they decided to press the issue.
"They might have come out and played their best first period of the series -- I don’t want to take that away from them. But no one in here is worried about it. We’re more worried about what we did to let them gain that kind of momentum. We feel like we’re one win away from forcing a game where anything can happen." -- Blair BettsNo, the Flyers did not give up. They stopped doing that a couple of months ago despite several opportunities since. But neither were they able to mount enough resistance. That, they insist, was on them.
"I think it's not the way they came out, it's the way we responded that wasn't good enough," forward Claude Giroux said.
"They obviously played a good game, but we didn't play anywhere close to the way we can play," said Leighton, who's been yanked from two of the three games played in Chicago. "If we play the same way, it's probably going to be the same result. But we know we're going to play different. We can play different. That just wasn't our best effort.
"If they looked way better than us, that's just because we didn't play well. It's not because of that. They obviously had a good game. But we didn't have anywhere close to our best game."
The presence of the Stanley Cup in the building will not faze the Flyers. Neither will the fear of elimination. They've been there and done that so often, they're using the T-shirt as a skate rag.
It is the presence of the Hawks' "A" game that could very well be the paralyzing force that finally stops this remarkable run. If so, then the Flyers merely were whistling past the graveyard following their practice at the Wachovia Center on Tuesday.
At any rate, they all were whistling the same tune. That old ditty about it not being you, it's me.
"I think the edge that they got was almost us giving it to them and not playing our best hockey and allowing them to come at us," Flyers captain Mike Richards said, still planning to hoist the Cup himself Friday night in Chicago rather than watch Jonathan Toews do it here Wednesday night.
"Yeah, I expect us to get back to the way we've played throughout the series. Last game was obviously just a blip, hopefully."