The Chicago Blackhawks will charge into Philadelphia boasting a 2-0 lead in the Stanley Cup Final, but the Flyers were unlucky not to skate out of the Windy City with the series even at one game apiece.
Behind 2-1 in the third period, the Eastern champions looked like a determined group as they did their best to score the equalizer on Antti Niemi in the final minutes of Game 2. If not for a few brilliant stops by the new Finnish sensation, Philly would indeed be returning home in a much different predicament.
But that is life in the Stanley Cup playoffs, when a team runs into a hot goaltender on one night and loses a critical game because of it. Niemi, who had many critics before the postseason began, has come through in the clutch with more than a few game-saving stops.
It wasn't any different in the Monday night win.
With the likes of Mike Richards, Simon Gagne, Danny Briere, Ville Leino, and Scott Hartnell throwing pucks towards his crease seemingly every second, he stood in there like a brick wall and preserved another one-goal victory for Chicago with 32 saves.
Despite another tight affair, it was a game unlike the 11-goal opener on Saturday when there were eight lead changes. Defense reigned supreme, as every fan suspected after players needed a game to shake off the championship nerves, and the Hawks were ultimately able to take advantage of two quick second-period goals.
Twenty-eight seconds after Marian Hossa scored the icebreaker—with his first Stanley Cup Finals goal in two seasons—fourth-liner Ben Eager snapped a shot past Michael Leighton to send the United Center into a frenzy, giving Chicago a 2-0 advantage. Gagne pulled Philadelphia within a goal on the power play five minutes into the final frame, but Niemi was spectacular in shutting down the late-game onslaught by the visitors.
Now the Flyers have the pressure of knowing they have to beat the Hawks in four of the next five games to win the Stanley Cup.
However, while Chicago has now taken complete control of the series, Philadelphia was clearly the better team as the game progressed and forged ahead with confidence after putting on a stellar show in the third with a 15-4 shot advantage.
Defensively, they limited the Blackhawks' guns to a few quality scoring chances throughout the game. For a second straight game, the top line of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Dustin Byfuglien was held scoreless.
More importantly, Leighton regained his form in net. The Flyers' journeyman goalie, a couple nights after allowing six goals, has rebounded nicely and has a new sense of confidence now that he has experienced the big stage and knows he can play well on it.
Philly is in another tough position behind two games, but they can skate back to the Wachovia Center for Game 3 with their heads high after a masterful third-period performance in Chicago.
And it's not like the Flyers haven't done this before in the 2010 playoffs. So while Blackhawks Nation may be partying the night away on Madison Street, a Stanley Cup champion is far from being crowned.
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