Flyers think positives for Game 3
Kimmo Timonen says the third period of Game 2 was the Flyers' best so far
Flyers must do a better job of hiding their weakest link: their third defense pair
Goalie Michael Leighton is a great story, but often plays just well enough to lose
PHILADELPHIA -- There is an advertising panel on the front of the Flyers' practice rink in southern New Jersey that features a furtive-looking Patrick Kane pushing his particular brand of hockey equipment. Because Flyers fans are the very paragons of decorum, the panel of the Blackhawks star has not been defaced.
No sketchy Daniel Carcillo mustache under Kane's lip.
Nothing. As of a week ago when we last visited, anyway.
Now, maybe things changed while SI.com was in Chicago for the start of the Stanley Cup Final on Memorial Day weekend. Can't really say. After a Game 1 that Blackhawks defenseman Brian Campbell likened to the two worst teams in the league vying for position in the draft lottery, and a tight Game 2 in which Chicago lost its nerve (although not the match) in the third period, the Flyers have returned to the Wachovia Center.
Game 3, not to beat the obvious as badly as ex-Flyer Ben Eager beat Philadelphia goalie Michael Leighton with a short-side wrister from 35 feet for the winning goal on Monday night, is the fulcrum of the series.
Despite being in the same kind of hole that Pittsburgh was able to clamber out of last spring to win the Cup in a seven-game final, the Flyers should feel good about themselves. They climbed all over Chicago in the third period of Game 2 the way fans at the Vet did Dodgers pitcher Burt Hooton in the 1977 National League Championship Series. (This is a classic Philly reference. Google it.)
The Blackhawks, the NHL's best puck possession team, suddenly lost interest in owning it, and were content to chip the rubber off the glass or make soft dumps out of the zone. They simply stopped making plays. On a three-on-two with about eight minutes left, Kris Versteeg dumped the puck into the corner. As Chicago's senior advisor Scotty Bowman said after the game, it's one thing to shut it down with five minutes to go and quite another to do it with 20.
"The third period was our best period so far," Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen said. "That's our game. That's the way we've been winning playoff games. That's us. We skate and create turnovers by skating. And I thought the first couple periods, we (didn't skate) as good as we can."
As for their two-game deficit, Philadelphia has seen a lot worse as recently as a few weeks ago. The Flyers lost the first three to Boston, as you surely recall, before roaring back with an historic comeback -- not that they would care to attempt to conjure the same kind of magic, as Flyers forward Claude Giroux sagely noted. The Blackhawks are 7-1 on the road in the playoffs.
"Both games, I thought a bounce here or there going our way, and the series could be tied 1-1," Flyers center Daniel Brière said. "But hey, we're down 2-0. We can't change that. We can't look back anymore just like the Boston series. We've gotta move forward and find a way to create our own bounces now. We have to be confident. We have to believe in ourselves. And like I said earlier, we've never quit before. We're not going to quit now."
But for all the positives the Flyers can extract from their Lost Weekend in Chicago -- holding Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Dustin Byfuglien to one point (a Byfuglien assist), not allowing a power play goal, sorely testing Hawks goalie Antti Niemi, instilling an element of doubt in the strutting Blackhawks -- there are two noticeable problems, one that should be easy to address and the other slightly more problematic.
The quick fix involves the Flyers' third defense pair. Philadelphia simply has not done a good enough job of hiding its weakest link: Lukas Krajicek and his partner -- Ryan Parent in Game 1 and Oskars Bartulis in Game 2.
After a killer turnover and performance that lasted all of one shift and 41 seconds in Game 1, Parent was tethered to the bench by coach Peter Laviolette. (If you take a postgame shower on a night like this, basically you're wasting water.) Bartulis, who hadn't played since Game 2 of the first-round series against New Jersey, was an upgrade, but assistant coach Kevin McCarthy, who runs the Flyers' defense, let the pair stay on the ice for a shift late in the second period against Patrick Sharp's line, which includes the dangerous Marian Hossa. Neither defenseman could tie up Troy Brouwer, who kept the puck alive on a rebound, or Hossa, who wound up swatting it in for the opening goal.
When asked about the personnel matchup, Laviolette, who generally runs a superb bench, answered, "First, we have to trust in all our defensemen out there. We look to keep them away from certain people when we can. But...our coverage was there. We had man on man."
The Flyers, at home, should have an easier time getting any match-up they desire. Of course the larger philosophical question is why NHL coaches even play their third pair much. (Krajicek had 15 shifts, one more than Bartulis, in Game 2.) Three decades ago, teams mostly played five defensemen, occasionally rotating in the spare. In 2010, TV timeouts provide pauses that should allow coaches to ride their better defensemen, who are far better conditioned than their progenitors. Philadelphia also is blessed in having a workhorse like the grand Chris Pronger, who played roughly half of the first two games.
The other concern is more intractable. Leighton simply has not provided Stanley Cup-caliber goaltending. No, we're not talking about Game 1. That was a freaky match, just one of those full-moon nights. The problem was Game 2. On Hossa's goal, Leighton juggled Sharp's shot and gave up an unfortunate rebound instead of hanging on to the puck and getting a faceoff. Was it a terrible play? Hardly. Given the Chicago traffic around his crease and the force of the shot, a rebound might have been expected. But a rebound was not inevitable. A Cup-winning goalie, in a scoreless game late in the second period, needs to make that play.
In speaking to several coaches about Leighton in the past week, Terry Murray of the Los Angeles Kings -- a Flyers assistant when Leighton made his first stop in Philadelphia during his infamous North American tour -- offered a spot-on insight. Murray said Leighton was a capable butterfly goalie, "but when things went wrong back then, he tended to go south in a hurry."
As they say in the parish hall: bingo. Twenty-eight seconds after Hossa's drought-ending goal, Eager, who had not scored in 13 playoff games, cashed his wrist shot. Leighton stopped 24 shots in Game 2. He had a creditable, bounce-back performance. He played just well enough to lose, especially when juxtaposed with Niemi.
Leighton is a fabulous story, though. He's the fifth goalie to play and the seventh to dress for the Flyers this season. The 29-year-old earned a mere $600,000 but because he was claimed on re-entry waivers from Carolina in December, the actual cost to the Flyers, based on the number of days he was with the team, was $177,419.35.
He is such a journeyman that he is on a first-name basis with Rand and McNally. He has belonged to seven different NHL organizations -- Carolina and Philadelphia twice -- although he never played for three of them. He has been sent to the minors 17 times. He has been traded four. Like Larry King's wives, he has regularly been placed on waivers. If there is a microcosm of Leighton's star-crossed career, it occurred on April 25, 2008, when he made 98 saves in a five-overtime playoff game against the Philadelphia's AHL affiliate. And lost.
"Everyone always seems to point the finger at goaltending when the Flyers don't win with good teams," said Sharp, an ex-Flyer. "Like here, every time the Cubs bail out of the playoffs, it's the goat's fault."
Unless Leighton can be just a little better on Wednesday, he might be Philadelphia's goat.