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Between The Dots: After strong start, Hawks hold serve

by Bob Verdi / Chicago Blackhawks

If ever a period deserved an exclamation point... did you catch the Blackhawks during the first 20 minutes Sunday night at the United Center?

The Philadelphia Flyers tried and failed, but they should not take it personally. If that wasn’t the best first period the Blackhawks have played this season, or post-season, it was certainly the most timely. After two defeats in the City of Brotherly Love, various theories were hatched, one of them being that the Blackhawks, for all their youth, appeared to be out of breath.

In reality, the Blackhawks didn’t look the least bit tired during this Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final, a 7-4 romp that positions the franchise—after 49 years and counting—60 minutes from a championship. The problem, of course, is that the Flyers are not going away. To be specific, they are going home for Game 6 Wednesday night when, by league rule, the Stanley Cup will be in the Wachovia Center, just in case. After two months of playoffs with visiting teams creating havoc, this last round between conference survivors has been strictly about holding serve.

Sunday night the Blackhawks went the extra step and also held a clinic. Coach Joel Quenneville and his able staff juggled personnel, with Jonathan Toews joining Marian Hossa and Tomas Kopecky while the captain’s erstwhile wingers toiled elsewhere, Patrick Kane with Andrew Ladd and Patrick Sharp; Dustin Byfuglien with Dave Bolland and Kris Versteeg.

Tactical maneuvers such as these are common, and even if the pieces aren’t a perfect fit, alterations do convey a sense of urgency, which is one emotion even the Blackhawks themselves admit they didn’t exude in Philadelphia. After being together since September, almost everybody has played with everybody. But as Sharp summarized, if you’ve got the kind of jump the Blackhawks exhibited Sunday night, anybody could be with anybody.

“The line changes obviously looked like a good thing,” said Toews. “But the number one thing was the way we played as a team. We all understand in our locker room it doesn’t matter who you are playing with.”

The operative phrase in Blackhawkspeak was “moving our legs.” You heard that so often afterward it was as though Chicago’s boys of winter were reading from cue cards. In private, the Blackhawks would be permitted to gloat about the numbers beside Chris Pronger, who was on for six goals against and in the penalty box for one of Byfuglien’s two. Pronger did not get away with murder, or any other indecent liberties.

The Blackhawks had been informed by experts that they were being dominated in this series by Pronger, that he had entered their heads and was depriving them of sleep. But this hockey, it’s slippery stuff.  Just when you think you have a handle on the situation, you discover you are wrong.

Take all those sociologists who were horrified when the Blackhawks dressed up the Michael Jordan statue in skates and a Toews jersey, all the better to celebrate the final. Blasphemous! How dare they violate that monument! Why, Jordan has to be offended! So who showed up at the UC Sunday night all decked out in a No. 19 red sweater? Michael, big smile on his face.  Moral to the story: even with these games basically occurring every other day, some critics still have too much free time.

Now there will be an extra day before Game 6 and Philadelphia coach Peter Laviolette quite correctly volunteered that one game is only one game. “There’s usually not a carry-over effect from game to game,” he went on. True the Blackhawks did play a reasonably effective third period in Game 4, but you could make the case that they had a lot of energy to spare after the first two.

Meanwhile, if you think the Flyers will congratulate themselves on a wonderful spring for a No. 7 seed, consider that they opened the second period like bandits. Scott Hartnell broke Antti Neimi’s the shutout at 32 seconds, and the Flyers weren’t done scaring the robust gathering of 22,305.

Kane made it 4-1, but then Kimmo Timonen tallied, and when Brent Seabrook went off in mid period, the Flyers were tenacious on a power play. Either Mike Richards or Ville Leino or both could have scored, but Niemi rejected them. Maybe the sweetest goal for the Blackhawks was Byfuglien’s from Boucher’s front porch, a marker that upped the count to 5-2 while Pronger was sitting for hooking.

When standing, Pronger was booed. When asked afterward about the evening, Pronger didn’t seem overly impressed by the Blackhawks’ artillery. “Anybody can make a play when you have all day to make one,” he concluded.

In that first period, the Blackhawks were, as they say, moving their legs. Ladd and Sharp peppered Leighton early, then Versteeg on a power play fished the puck from behind the net to Seabrook. Leighton got a piece of it, but it was 1-0. A delayed penalty to the Flyers' Matt Carle for cross-checking beckoned when the Blackhawks washed it out the best way possible, by scoring. Niemi was off and Brett Sopel kept the puck in the zone and Bolland took it from behind Leighton, then banked it in off the goalie’s right skate for a 2-0 advantage.

The third goal came at 18:15 when Versteeg carried from blue line to blue line, then cut to the middle and fired through a partially screened Leighton. “Good energy,” noted Quenneville, “right from the outset.”

It was Versteeg who groused after Game 4 about how the Blackhawks had yet to play 60 minutes, or something resembling that, in the finals. Game 5 was significantly better, but it will be a whole different world again Wednesday in Philadelphia, where the Stanley Cup will be in the house. The Flyers are ornery and you know about those loyal and lively fans.

It’s one thing to throw batteries. Just as long as they’re not car batteries.

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