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Between The Dots: Tough loss, indeed

by Bob Verdi / Chicago Blackhawks

PHILADELPHIA—It’s not like the Blackhawks play here every other week, but this is ridiculous. Not since 1996 have they won a game in the City of Brotherly Love, where they should have won Saturday. This was absolutely no way to prepare for Sunday’s United Center encounter with the real beast of the East, Washington’s Capitals.

“Tough loss,” rasped coach Joel Quenneville, on whose lower lip you could have landed a small plane after the Flyers scored twice in the last 2:04, including the winner with three regulation seconds remaining to prevail 3-2. “Tough loss.” He can say that again, and probably will.

Understand that Philadelphia expressed excitement about meeting the Blackhawks, even before beating them. Fighting for a playoff spot, the Flyers termed the game a “measuring stick” of where they stand against elite teams in the NHL. This is interesting, because when the Blackhawks used to come here, they were called a lot less flattering things than a measuring stick.

Now, measure this: the Flyers basically  went end-to-end on the tying and tie-breaking goals, a pair of 200-footers that begged to be interrupted but weren’t. The Flyers liked skating through and around the elite visiting team so much the first time, they did it again.

“This would be a nice match-up again down the road,” said Michael Leighton, Philadelphia’s goalie who assisted on the first of those long-distance connections that culminated in Scott Hartnell’s tally to make it 2-2 at 17:56 of the third period. For the Blackhawks and Flyers to match up down the road this spring, of course, it would have to be in the Stanley Cup finals, an assignment either franchise would gladly accept. However, weeks of hard labor are ahead for both teams. The Blackhawks must shake some unhealthy habits that have haunted them recently , but at least they are sure of a post-season. Philadelphia finds itself in heavy traffic of a contentious conference.

The Flyers can only imagine what might have been. Since the NHL doubled its size from the Original Six to twelve teams, Philadelphia has been a model franchise, physically and fiscally. Two Stanley Cups, almost always competitive. Lo and behold, the Flyers endured a horrid season in 2006-07. Their worst ever: 22 wins, 48 losses and 12 ties. No team in the league fared as poorly, and then they dropped another one by yielding the No. 1 post position in the NHL draft. The Blackhawks won the lottery and snatched Patrick Kane. The Flyers wound up with James Van Riemsdyk, a teammate of Kane’s on the US National Under-18 team.  Van Riemsdyk is a nice player, but he’s no Patrick Kane.

“I could have wound up here,” noted Kane.

Meanwhile, Leighton is a pupil of Stephane Waite, the Blackhawks’ gatekeeper of goalkeepers and a proud tutor of the Flyers’ well-traveled masked man who had parts of two seasons in Chicago: 2002-03, when he played only eight games, and 2003-04, when he played 34. Leighton was claimed by Philadelphia last December from the Carolina Hurricanes. He also has dabbled with the Montreal Canadiens, Nashville Predators and Anaheim Ducks, which might explain why his Philadelphia address is a downtown hotel. Leighton never had won more than six games in any NHL season, but Saturday’s was his 13th victory already this winter. Management appears anxious to extend Leighton’s contract while local fans are merely anxious.

On Philadelphia talk shows, guess what the hot topic is? Do the Flyers have enough goalkeeping to go fancy places? Who is really No. 1? Sound familiar? But don’t hang Saturday’s shock theater on Cristobal Huet.

“Tough loss,” groused Quennville. There. He said it again.

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