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Between The Dots: Dust off those seatbelts

06/03/2010 9:16 AM

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PHILADELPHIA—You can put away your brooms now, Blackhawk fans, and dust off those seatbelts you didn’t think you would need. The Stanley Cup final just became a bit more contentious.

The Philadelphia Flyers, all orange all the time, could have turned into pumpkins even before the clock struck 12 on Wednesday night. But such does not seem to be their preferred mode during these playoffs, a postseason of high-wire acts that now must include a 4-3 overtime victory in Game 3. The Blackhawks still lead the tournament 2 to 1, but the course of events on this humid evening at the Wachovia Center should serve as a skin bracer.

When Jonathan Toews found Patrick Kane with a lovely feed that would result in a goal and a 3-2 Blackhawks lead at 2:50 of the third period, the degree of stress within the building here was palpable, as was the relief in Chicago that its two young guns had returned to the scoresheet after a brief absence. But the Blackhawks had only several seconds to enjoy this potential silencer, because a number of things happened thereafter, none good.

At 3:10, in a return volley, Ville Leino beat goalie Antti Niemi to forge a 3-3 tie. Then Niemi had to stop Mike Richards and Claude Giroux and Braydon Coburn and Danny Briere, just to name a few  in the shooting gallery. All of a sudden the Blackhawks were retreating on a night when they could have all but chloroformed the Flyers. For emphasis while not touching the puck, Chris Pronger, the functionally angry Philadelphia defenseman, separated Kane from his helmet, no whistle forthcoming.

Early in OT, a puck bouncing around Niemi’s vicinity was smothered, then misplaced by the goalie. Fans cheered, joy had come to the city of Brotherly Love. But it was no goal, unlike a second period review that resulted in a 2-1 Philadelphia advantage. If the Blackhawks felt sudden encouragement about this development in sudden death, it was fleeting.

At 5:59, Giroux brought the Flyers a well-earned victory on an odd-man rush while the Blackhawks were… well, let’s just say that if awards were given out for smoothest choreography on a line change, the Blackhawks would not have been nominated on their last one.

Didn’t something like this happen in March, when the Blackhawks were seeking their first win here since 1996 and botched a 2-1 lead in the last two minutes? Indeed, but it was more than that this night. The Blackhawks had four shots in the third period to Philadelphia’s 15. The Blackhawks had only four shots in the third period of Game 2 at the United Center and got away with a 2-1 decision. They didn’t get away with it Wednesday night. Is anybody worried?

“No, we just have to be better and not make mistakes,” said Brent Sopel, who tied the game 2-2 after John Madden cleanly won a draw from Richards. Sopel’s shot, not a rocket, eluded all bodies, including Michael Leighton’s. Chicago’s other goal was similar in kind, Duncan Keith’s drive banking off Jeff Carter’s stick. Briere opened the scoring on a power play for the Flyers, who went up 2-1 with Dustin Byfuglien in the box for slashing Pronger, although Big Buff seemed to be of a mind that he was sent off for being slashed by Pronger.

Whatever, Pronger’s missile was touched en route by Scott Hartnell. Niemi got a piece of it, but the puck slipped through him. He swerved to his right and the puck wobbled to the pipe on his left. At the last instant,
Niklas Hjalmarsson reached in, attempting to fish the puck back to blue ice. The red lights ignited, the horn went off… but play continued for a good minute or so. At the next whistle, the play was reviewed, and referee Bill McCreary announced to the gathering that the puck was deemed to have crossed the line completely.

The largest NHL crowd in Pennsylvania history (at least until next January’s outdoor fare in Pittsburgh) roared lustily, as it had since the gates opened. By the way, the Jim Cornelison of Philadelphia is Lauren Hart, daughter of Gene Hart, who was the Lloyd Pettit/Pat Foley of Chicago, a popular broadcaster who was the voice of the Flyers for a long time, including  their consecutive Stanley Cup years in 1974-75. Often during those glory days of the Broad Street Bullies, they would bring in Kate Smith to sing “God Bless America.” She was a good luck charm; Gene Hart was the goods. He died in 1999, and the press box at the Wachovia Center is in his name.

For Wednesday night’s Game 3, Lauren Hart wore a T-shirt from the 1974 Stanley Cup Flyers team, started and finished “God Bless America,” but not without some digitally inserted assistance from Smith. Reaching a crescendo, they wound up in a duet. 

Highlights of past Flyer teams were flashed on the board before the game—just like the United Center—although one memory is strictly local. In 1976, a touring Soviet hockey team played the Flyers at the Spectrum and didn’t care for their rough tactics. So, the Soviets bolted the ice for their dressing room, nearly creating an international incident. They returned and lost 4-1 to an ornery crew captained by Bobby Clarke, who is now Bob, a senior vice president for the Flyers.

Wednesday night he recalled a bygone game in Chicago. The Flyers were staying over, so coach Fred Shero, always ahead of the curve, rerouted the team bus. “We thought we would be going back to the hotel as usual,” said Clarke. “But Freddie had the driver go to Rush Street and drop us off at the bars. He figured we’d be winding up there, anyway, so he saved us cabfare.”

The Blackhawks’ team bus Wednesday night had a police escort directly back to the hotel. No bars, definitely some rest, maybe some third period film reviews with coach Joel Quenneville come morning.