Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Bloody Sunday

This past weekend couldn't have started off any better. It really couldn't have. The Phillies took the field at 7 p.m., and despite their recent slide, came away with a 3-2 victory behind another terrific Roy Halladay start and highlighted by Brad Lidge coming for the save with a perfect, filthy 1-2-3 ninth that included two strikeouts — one to Adrian Gonzalez on a tailing 94-mph fastball on the black after an unhittable slider, and the other on Chase Headley to end the game.

It was just one game, but Brad Lidge looked a whole lot more like this:

Than he did this:

That's good news for the Phillies.

As nice as it was to see Lidge and Halladay to combine for the victory, let's be honest, the Phils were pretty much the farthest thing from my biggest concern Friday night. It was game 4, with the Flyers trailing 2 games to 1 in the Stanley Cup Final trying to even things up at home and ensure a return trip to Philadelphia before it was all said and done. If there was any question if the Flyers would be up to the challenge, it wouldn't take for the answer.

On already their second power play of the game following a high stick by Tomas Kopecky, Jeff Carter settled in for the faceoff against John Madden. I was yelling at Carter to win the draw and actually do something for once in this series, but of course Madden won it. That's what he does, win faceoffs and play great defense. Madden did his job, won the puck back to Niklas Hjalmarsson and the Blackhawks were all set up for an easy clear to waste valuable power play seconds for the Flyers. Only that didn't happen. Because the captain never quit on the play. Mike Richards followed Hjalmarsson around the net, lifted his stick from behind and in one motion fired it past a surprised, unexpecting Antti Niemi, 1-0 Flyers.

It was as awesome an individual play as you'll ever see, the captain leading the way from the onset to put his team ahead. I couldn't have been happier. The Flyers were at home, up on their skates, buzzing. Michael Leighton looked poised in net, and you could sense the Wachovia Center just waiting to erupt. It would thanks to an unlikely source.

James van Riemsdyk played so bad, looked so overwhelmed in game 1 that he was scratched in favor of Dan Carcillo in games 2 and 3. After Carcillo took a couple penalties — some legit, some not — and struggled to make an impact, Peter Laviolette called upon the rookie once again. On his first few shifts Friday, he looked shaky and overwhelmed again. He was fighting the puck, and looking timid. I envisioned very little ice time for him the rest of the way.

But then out of nowhere, van Riemsdyk made one of the most confident plays I've ever seen. Matt Carle jumped in from the point to keep the puck in Chicago's zone and tucked it back to Claude Giroux. Giroux cut toward the middle of the ice out high and saw a streaking player coming in. It was JVR, fresh off a line change for Darroll Powe. Riemer was flying into the zone with speed. Claude spotted him and fed him the puck. That's when JVR showed he was overwhelmed no longer. Shedding the deer in headlights look with authority, he roared in, going right at Hjalmarsson and then spun away, a nifty spin-o-rama to get behind the net. With his head up, he found a cutting Giroux, who spun and fired off Hjarlmarsson, at this point completely spun around and shaken. The puck came right out to Carle, who pounced the rebound and deposited it in the back of the net, 2-0 Flyers.

I was going bonkers, lauding Claude and Carle and especially JVR. Van Riemsdyk has shown flashes of brilliance like that at times throughout the year, but he hadn't shown a thing in the one game plus his earlier shifts on the night in this series. Then he pulled that out, and the Flyers went up 2-0. Huge.

After Carle's goal, uncle jellyfish implored the Flyers to just hold this rare two-goal lead through the end of the period. They did not, as former Flyers Patrick Sharp scored with less than two minutes remaining. Blair Betts actually won a defensive zone draw back to Braydon Coburn. Coburn tried to go up the boards with it, but Scott Hartnell was challenged and the puck never got out of the zone. Chicago kept it in, it went to Sharp and he rifled one by Leighton. It was a killer goal, the kind of backbreaker that could easily shift momentum. After such a great period, getting the crowd into it and going up 2-0, it was now a one-goal game with Chicago on the offensive. It couldn't have been a more harmful goal … or so I thought. Because less than a minute later, the Flyers responded with one of the most beautiful goals you will ever see.

Scott Hartnell, who has been one of the best players in the entire series, entered the zone with speed, stopped on a dime, and fed it to Kimmo Timonen, who jumped in the play. Timonen eyed the net, and saw Giroux hiding down low all by himself. Kimmo wasted no time, hitting Giroux at the side of the net, and Claude rammed it home, 3-1, two-goal lead back in store. As deflating as it was giving up the goal to Sharp so late, this one was even more lethal to Chicago. After staving off a furious first period and getting within one, the Blackhawks let the Flyers go back up by two with just 37 seconds remaining before the intermission. There was no way in hell Chicago was coming back in this one.

Again, or so I thought. The second period had some tense moments, but with no one lighting the lamp, it boded well for the Flyers. The only question was whether or not Ville Leino would be OK after taking a pretty big hit earlier. We would get our answer. Up two and playing well, Leino worked a little bit of his playoff magic.

It was the most beautiful awful shot I've ever seen. He shot the puck right off of the back of Kris Versteeg's shoulder. If that thing didn't hit Versteeg, it was going nowhere near the net. But it did, and then it fluttered over Niemi and in, 4-1. Game, set, match. The Flyers held the first three-goal lead of the series with just 13 minutes and change left. No way Chicago was going to come back from this one. But then, Braydon Coburn got hit with a holding penalty, and Dave Bolland made Philadelphia pay, 4-2 with eight minutes to play. Less than four minutes later, Brian Campbell beat Leighton, making it 4-3, and I was officially pissed.

These guys had a three-goal lead in the third period. If they were to blow this, I was going to lose it. It was inexcusable, sloppy, unfocused. And Chicago kept coming. Braydon Coburn was forced to make a goal-saving play by clearing the puck from the crease with his a glove, a play that was dangerously close to a penalty. Michael Leighton made a tremendous kick save off his skate on a puck that was deflected late. The Flyers were holding on for dear life. It was getting to be too much.

Then finally, mercifully, Jeff Carter did something right in this series, burying an empty-netter to seal the deal and let us all let out a sigh of relief. The Flyers were headed back to Chicago with the series tied.

Needing a release from such a nerve-wracking ending, I went out a boozed the night away, all set for a care-free Saturday of drinking and barbecuing and watching baseball. We had people over for a cookout, had a great time, and the Phils won again, this time exploding for 6 whole runs in a 6-2 win. Jamie Moyer pitched another improbable complete game. The Phils even hit a home run, courtesy of Jayson Werth. Talk about two great days to start the weekend.

You know, everything was going so well. A little too well. Almost like the calm before the storm. And that storm was Sunday. Was it ever. I should have known things were going to go to shit when I injured myself throwing my body all over the place playing sports as if I was a teenager when I am in fact becoming an old man. To add insult to injury, literally, I get home and see Danys Baez continue to suck, blowing the game in the 10th as the Phils lost 6-5. Not good. And it was only about to get worse.

Tired, battered and bruised, I took a nap before the Flyers game. When I woke up, I was still sort of out of it, not feeling the butterflies you get before a big playoff game. It was almost like I was sleepwalking until the puck actually dropped. That's where the Flyers picked up where I left off.

From the drop of the puck until the first horn, it looked as though the Flyers were sleepwalking. They were just going through the motions, barely. It was all Chicago. Back in front of their home fans, the Blackhawks were energized and focused. They suffocated the Flyers, keeping them pinned in their own zone. They physically beat up the Flyers, skated circles around them, competed better in ever facet of the game. Joe Quenneville made the adjustments, breaking up the Toews-Kane-Byfuglien line, spreading the talent across more evenly, and the Flyers couldn't adjust.

And worst of all, the man between the pipes for Philadelphia looked like the most unstable guy out there. Which was unexpected, even if Leighton had been pulled already in the series. The reason it was so surprising is because early on, he made a bevy of terrific saves on great scoring chances. Then he just fell apart. He got beat short side. He lost sight of the puck at the side of the net. And he got beat on very savable shots. I think it would be unfair to Leighton to say he should have stopped all three goals he surrendered in that first period given how terrible his teammates were playing in front of him, but I think it is absolutely fair to say all three goals came on shots that definitely could have been saved.

It was about as awful of a period as I've ever seen any Flyers team play, let alone this group. And it came in a pivotal game 5 of all times to happen. How the Flyers could have been caught so off-guard, looked to flat-footed and slow and tired and disinterested in a Stanley Cup Final game is beyond me. I just don't get it. I really don't. It was pathetic. And sad. And inexcusable. If they had shown up at all that first period, maybe the outcome would have been different. Maybe not, but we'll never know. I at least would have liked to see some fight early on.

Though to Philadelphia's credit, they didn't quit. The redemption line gave the Flyers a pulse, as Ville Leino and Danny Briere assisted on the goal by Scott Hartnell.

It couldn't make up for the first period, but as this series has shown us, no lead is safe, and 3-1 looked a whole lot better than 3-0. Though 3-1 soon became 4-1, as Patrick Kane beat Brian Boucher. Still, the Flyers were playing better, looking better, getting chances. Especially the Briere-Leino-Hartnell line, which has easily been the Flyers' best line in the Stanley Cup Final and probably the best line period. They weren't about to let the Blackhawks get away scott-free, and their hard work paid off, as less than two minutes after Kane put Chicago back up by three, this trio went to work.

Leino found Briere behind the net, who threw it toward Niemi. The puck squirted across near Leino, Hartnell dove for it, and the rubber ultimately found Kimmo Timonen's stick. Timonen calmly fired a perfect shot past the down and out Niemi just in the nick of time. Hartnell was getting up and if Timonen waited just a nanosecond later, his shot would have hit Scottie and not gone in. Luckily Kimmo showed impeccable timing, nothing new for one of the game's most underappreciated players.

It was back to a two-goal game, and the Flyers were turning up the heat. Suddenly, all the play was in Chicago's end. Niemi made some great saves, but he was also spitting out fat, juicy rebound after fat, juicy rebound. If the Flyers could just pounce on a couple, convert some chances, they still had a chance, even after not showing up in the first 20 minutes. Then the Flyers got a golden chance.

The puck came to Mike Richards with an empty net staring him in the face. Richards tried to one-time it , but the puck kind of handcuffed him and he shot it right back into Niemi, no goal. It was the kind of chance you have to bury. Richards could have taken one second longer to gather himself and fired it in the exposed net. Instead, he flubbed it right back to Niemi. It was a killer. And it was representative of Richards' night, and the top line's series.

Through my eyes, Richards and Jeff Carter were by far the worst players on the ice. Even worse than Chris Pronger and his minus-5, Claude Giroux and his minus-4 and Matt Carle and his minus-3. Richards couldn't settle the puck on his stick, he tried way too many of his dumb passes through sticks, he looked slow and gassed and wasn't throwing his weight around. The missed open net was a microcosm of his game. Jeff Carter has been invisible the entire series, and it's reached the point where you almost wonder what the hell he's doing out there. He's not scoring. He's not playing defense. He's not doing anything. At least Dan Carcillo brings energy. Carter has brought nothing to the table. And if Carter and Richards aren't going, Simon Gagne doesn't stand much of a chance. That line has been dreadful.

Still, even with the top line playing like garbage, the Flyers were tied 2-2 in the series, and they were still within striking range of the game. That's when Ville Leino had his golden opportunity, staring a wide open net right in the face. Surely Leino, the man who has become a surprise playoff hero and can do no wrong, would draw the Flyers within one. Only he didn't. Like Richards, Leino failed to convert on an empty net as well, and that's where the game shifted back to Chicago for good.

Shortly after Richards and Leino both missed their chance to make it a one-goal game, Chris Pronger was called for the weakest hook in the history of hockey. He tapped the guy's shoulder. It was a terrible call. Just like the missed high stick by Duncan Keith on Danny Briere that should have been a 4-minute power play but turned out to be nothing at all. But sometimes those are the breaks. And on the ensuing power play, Dustin Byfuglien, enjoying not having Pronger on the ice, scored. It was the nail in the coffin. The game went from 4-3 had Richards or Leino scored to 5-2 with the weak penalty and resulting goal.

The only consolation you can take in the eventual 7-4 loss is that the Flyers showed no quit. James van Riemsdyk scored in the third to make it 5-3, only to be answered by Patrick Sharp. Still, they didn't quit, as Ville Leino made an absurd play to set up Simon Gagne to make it 6-4.

Too bad Ville couldn't show those hands on that vacant net. Then Byfuglien added the empty-netter, getting a two-goal game, which wasn't good. And that's basically what Sunday was, not good. It was a blood bath. The Flyers got outhit, outhustled, outplayed. Laviolette got outcoached, as Quenneville shuffled his lines to get things going. It worked. Kane scored. Byfuglien scored twice. And now the Blackhawks looked more balanced.

Chris Pronger and Matt Carle struggled. Ian Laperriere looked old. The top line was nonexistent. Now the Flyers are one game away from elimination, facing questions. Leighton was pulled again, and Boucher didn't exactly light up the world. Can Leighton rebound again? Will the top line show up? Will Laviolette shuffle things around the way Quenneville will? The only thing we can all agree on is that the Leino-Hartnell-Briere line can't be messed with, not the way they're playing. So what now? We'll have to wait and see.

I know this much, when I enter the Wachovia Center tonight (oh yeah, I'm going to the game), the Flyers are still just two wins away from hoisting the greatest trophy in sports. They'll have to win one at home, one on the road. It's a daunting task. Their backs are against the wall. Time to fight their way out twice more.


BallHype: hype it up!

No comments:

Post a Comment