The Chicago Blackhawks escaped with the Stanley Cup final lead on a night when Michael Leighton and Antti Niemi both turned back into Michael Leighton and Antti Niemi.
Lurking behind the remarkable playoff run of both previously unheralded goaltenders was the question of which would be the first to see his hot streak evaporate. Actually, it happened to both of them.
The best line came on Hockey Night In Canada from goaltender-turned-analyst Glenn Healy as the red lights flashed: "Last save wins." That figuratively went to Niemi, who managed to survive for a 6-5 win in the first game of the NHL final by the Blackhawks in front of a roaring throng of 22,312 at the United Centre.
It was the first time since 1973 the Blackhawks, who last won the Cup in 1961, won a game in the final. They were swept in the 1992 final by Mario Lemieux and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Leighton was the first to crack, getting yanked in the second period, and his replacement, Brian Boucher, surrendered the winning goal to Blackhawks forward Tomas Kopecky at 8:25 of the third period. Some thought the goal should not have been allowed because play should have been stopped earlier when the puck hit Kopecky when he was sitting on the boards at the Chicago bench, waiting to jump on the ice. But play continued and Kopecky came off the bench to score.
Head coach Peter Laviolette and the rest of the Flyers did not see the contact and afterward Laviolette said there was no use crying about it now.
"If a puck hits a player on the bench it should be whistled down," he said. "But that's neither here nor there. They scored."
Laviolette did not blame Leighton for the loss, saying the Flyers' defensive game, usually air-tight in these playoffs, broke down. "We were just too loose in front of our net," he said.
The Flyers did do a good job defensively on the Blackhawks' top line of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Dustin Byfuglien. They did not manage a point and were a collective minus-9 on the evening. "You look at the lines and that's the one line of four that needs to be better," Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville said.
Thanks to the Blackhawks' depth, though, they could fall back on the Marian Hossa-Patrick Sharp-Troy Brouwer line, which had its best game of the playoffs. Brouwer scored two goals, both set up by Hossa, and the trio finished with a total of six points.
"We were getting lots of chances [earlier in the playoffs]but for whatever reason the puck didn't go in," Hossa said. "We made those chances again and this time the puck goes in."
Control of the game swung back and forth between the teams thanks to the shaky goaltending and defensive play.
At one point during the first period, the Blackhawks looked to be completely in charge after a slow start. Dave Bolland, their chief pest, capitalized on a Braydon Coburn turnover at the Chicago blue line for a shorthanded goal on a breakaway and the Blackhawks had a 2-1 lead midway through the period.
The Blackhawks were the faster team, the Flyers were making a few too many mistakes and Leighton was looking ordinary after a long run of excellence. Welcome to the faster, trickier Western Conference, the experts were saying to the Flyers.
But it did not last long.
Within four minutes, the Flyers tied the score, took control of the play, jammed the front of Niemi's net and left the ice at the end of the first period with a 3-2 lead in their back pockets. Despite the lapse that allowed Bolland to score, the Flyers made the Blackhawks pay for taking three penalties in the first period, scoring twice on the power play, and got to Niemi by outshooting Chicago 11-1 after Bolland's goal. They outshot the Blackhawks 17-9 over the period.
Scott Hartnell and Chris Pronger did the damage for the Flyers. Pronger was his usual dominating self on defence, knocking bodies around and then firing the puck from the point to pick up both assists. In each case Hartnell banged in Pronger's rebound.
It was a particularly tough first period for Toews, Kane and Byfuglien. They committed several mistakes, the worst being Kane's turnover at his own blue line late in the first period that set up Daniel Briere's goal that gave the Flyers the lead. Byfuglien was unable to do much in front of the net thanks to Pronger, who played 11 minutes, 41 seconds in the first period because Laviolette benched defenceman Ryan Parent after he coughed up the puck to set up Brouwer's first goal.
The meltdown of Leighton and Niemi picked up steam in the second period, which ended with the score tied 5-5. As Leighton faltered, so did the Flyer defence.
Leighton got the hook at 15:18 when Brouwer scored his second goal of the night to put the Blackhawks ahead 5-4. He gave way to Boucher, just back in the lineup after two sprained knees, having allowed five goals on 20 shots.
Sharp and Kris Versteeg had the other Blackhawk goals in the second period.
At the other end of the ice, Niemi was no better but may have survived into the third period because Quenneville does not have a lot of confidence in backup Cristobal Huet. Niemi surrendered goals to Blair Betts and Asham, who got his second of the night.
Quenneville, though, said he did not consider pulling Niemi because the goals "we gave them were because our coverage wasn't what it needed to be."