Here’s a development I didn’t think we would see: the Flyers overwhelmed in the first period in Game 5.
The Flyers had to realize the Chicago Blackhawks would come out storming Sunday night since the Flyers had seized the momentum of the Stanley Cup Final by winning two games in Philadelphia to square the series at 2-2. The ‘Hawks were desperate: they knew they couldn’t journey back to Philadelphia for Game 6 trailing three games to two in the series.
After the Blackhawks dominated the first 10 minutes of Game 5 but didn’t score, I was waiting for the Flyers to strike and silence the “Madhouse on Madison.” Unfortunately for the Flyers, Brent Seabrook connected on a power play at 12:17. By the end of the period Chicago led 3-0 and Brian Boucher replaced Michael Leighton in the net at the start of the second.
When the Flyers trimmed Chicago’s lead to 4-2 early in the second period, I kept thinking that if the Flyers scored next the Blackhawks might get rattled. With Seabrook serving a penalty, the Flyers did everything but put the puck past Chicago goaltender Antti Niemi: Mike Richards had a golden chance in front and Ville Leino, greeted with an open net, shot wide. When Dustin Byfuglien scored on a power play late in the period, Chicago’s 5-2 lead looked as big as, well, “Big Buff” himself.
Post-game comments by Richards and Leino were somewhat alarming for the Flyers faithful. How can a team in the Flyers’ situation not be more aggressive? Let’s credit the Blackhawks here: they are a very talented team. But the Flyers should’ve played with more confidence.
“We came out slow (and) tentative,” Richards said. “We didn’t move our feet and (we) turned a lot of pucks over. All our success this series was turning pucks over, getting the puck in deep, hitting their defensemen. We had none of that going on in the first period.”
|Chicago Blackhawks right wing Dustin Byfuglien, right, checks referee Dan O'Halloran and Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen into the boards during the third period of Game 5 of the NHL Stanley Cup hockey final on Sunday, June 6, 2010 in Chicago. The Blackhawks won 7-4 and lead the series 3-2. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast) |
Said Leino: “I think we were ready. We were a little too ready. We were a little nervous. We weren’t loose enough to make plays.” Referring to Chicago’s fast start, Leino said, “We were playing catch-up hockey. We were following all the time. It’s not the way to play. They got good players. They will score goals, so we have to be smarter.”
As expected, the Blackhawks hit every Flyers player they could zero in on. “They came out hard and we didn’t answer their intensity or their physicality,” Chris Pronger
At 6-6, 224 pounds Pronger is a big target. For the first time in the series, the Blackhawks crunched the Flyers towering defenseman from the start. Andrew Ladd rocked Pronger behind the Flyers net early in the first period. Patrick Sharp followed with a big hit. At least twice Pronger was knocked off his skates by hard-hitting Chicago players, led by the 6-4, 257-pound Byfuglien, who had nine hits in the game.
We’ll see in Game 6 if the hits have affected Pronger. As expected, after Sunday night’s loss he dismissed the Chicago hits as he does with annoying questions from the media.
“It was just a by-product of them having the puck a lot,” Pronger said.
Let’s be honest: if Pronger thought Chicago targeting him was wearing him down, he’d never admit it.
Byfuglien was a force in a game for the first time in the Final. “He did everything right,” Chicago center Dave Bolland told the Chicago Tribune. “He was making hits. He wasn’t running out of position to make hits. When he plays that way he’s one of the most dominant players in this league.”
A major concern for the Flyers in Game 5 was the disappearance of Jeff Carter from the offense. Carter (one empty-net goal and one assist in the Final) has to be a presence in Game 6 for the Flyers to have a chance at winning.
As usual, when Richards isn’t scoring (he has one goal and one assist in the Final) he makes things happen on the ice, either setting up teammates for scoring opportunities or checking opponents. Late in the first period of Game 5, the Flyers captain loomed over a sprawled Niemi, jamming at the puck until the whistle blew. Predictably, this annoyed the Blackhawks, who pounded the fallen Richards as if he were a trouble-making protestor at political rally. When the angry Richards was able to get back up on his skates, he had to be restrained from retaliating.
A losing team can’t take many positives from a 7-4 defeat in the Stanley Cup Final, but here’s one: the four goals yielded by Niemi. Simon Gagne’s ninth goal of the playoffs with just 2:36 remaining had to make Chicago a little nervous.
In the last three Finals games, Niemi has allowed 12 goals. I suspect that despite the Blackhawks being one game from winning the Stanley Cup, they are worried that they can’t stuff a sock in the Flyers mouths and shut them down.
Clearly, the Flyers also have a goaltending issue. Coach Peter Laviolette faces a major decision for Game 6: does he stay with Leighton as the starter or turn to Boucher?
Two of the first-period goals scored against Leighton in Game 5 were stoppable shots. It turns out, Leighton was struck on a knee by a shot during the warmup prior to the game. He denied that he was affected by the shot in the game.
Surely a factor in Laviolette’s thinking will be, Leighton is unbeaten at the Wachovia Center during the playoffs. Boucher hasn’t started a game since the Boston series.
Whoever is in the nets for Game 6, the “Comeback Kids” in orange and black cannot continue relying on their uncanny ability to conquer adversity. They need to take control of the game early. For the Flyers, it’s now survival or denial. The Stanley Cup will be in the Wachovia Center Wednesday night in case Chicago clinches. That’s a ceremony the Flyers and their fans don’t want to witness.
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…Why NBC makes a big deal over Dan Patrick being part of the network’s telecast of the Stanley Cup Finals. If NBC brought in Danica Patrick to work the Finals, we could understand.Please note that the views expressed in this column are not necessarily the views expressed by the Philadelphia Flyers Hockey Club.
Bill Fleischman is a veteran Philadelphia Daily News sportswriter. He was the Flyers' beat reporter for the Daily News in the 1970s, and continued to cover games in later years. A former president of the Professional Hockey Writers and the Philadelphia Sports Writers Associations, Fleischman is co-author of "Bernie, Bernie," the autobiography of Bernie Parent. Fleischman also is co-author of "The Unauthorized NASCAR Fan Guide." Since 1982, he has been an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware journalism program.
He is a graduate of Germantown High School and Gettysburg College.