Flyers’ goaltender Michael Leighton had a .948 playoff save percentage and a 1.45 postseason goals against average coming into the Stanley Cup Finals. He was even better in the Eastern Conference Finals, shutting out Montreal three times.
Blackhawks’ goaltender Antti Niemi had been equally impressive, posting a .921 save percentage and a 2.33 goals against average in twice as many playoff games. He had, in the last two rounds, successfully shut down two of the top-five scoring offenses in the NHL.
Both the Flyers and Blackhawks have All Star, Olympian defensemen, headlined by Philadelphia’s Chris Pronger and Chicago’s Norris Trophy Finalist Duncan Keith.
Everyone looked at these two teams and projected the Stanley Cup Finals to be a physical, grinding, defensive series.
And then Saturday night happened.
In what could best be described as hockey resembling a seventh grader trying to get a bra off for the first time, two of the youngest teams in the NHL piled up stats all over the box score. Big numbers, too.
How about 64 total shots on goal, or 77 hits (10 from Dustin Byfuglien alone)? How about 11 goals, 10 in the fist two periods? Five first period goals was the most in Game One of the Finals since 1982.
The only players not racking up big numbers were the two netminders. Niemi allowed five goals on 32 shots (.844 save percentage), while Leighton allowed five goals on just 20 shots (.750 save percentage).
Leighton didn’t make it out of the second period.
Brian Boucher’s numbers were better (one goal on 12 shots – .917 save percentage), but the one he allowed gave the decision to Chicago.
The story of the first game of this year’s Finals is really one of two games, however.
In the first two periods, the pace was at break-neck speed. Both teams were turning the puck over, sprinting up and down the ice, and scoring at will. Neither defense was effective, and the Blackhawks were taking dumb penalties.
The Flyers and Blackhawks exchanged 3-2 periods and the dust settled after two with over 22,300 fans and media looking for a cardiologist and the score tied 5-5.
The third period was a completely different story.
Almost immediately in the third, the Blackhawks were able to control the puck in the Flyers’ zone. After 26 shots in the first two periods, it took Philadelphia 12 minutes to get three in the third. Meanwhile, in his first action since the Boston series, Boucher was desperately trying to keep the Flyers in the game.
At 8:25, the dam broke. Tomas Kopecky snuck the puck past Boucher’s leg into the back of the net, and the United Center exploded (again). The Blackhawks had a third period lead.
The fact that it was Kopecky perfectly capped a night that made almost zero sense.
Kopecky had two points in his first action in weeks. He entered the game averaging barely over 13 minutes per game in the postseason; he skated 16:45 on Saturday. Oh, and the goal was his fourth of the postseason; Marian Hossa has two.
Kopecky was skating in the place of injured Andrew Ladd on what is becoming a famous, or infamous, line for Chicago. Dave Bolland scored another short-handed goal in the first period, while Kris Versteeg matched Kopecky’s goal and assist on the night.
All this while, yet again, shutting down their opponents’ top line; Mike Richards, who was Bolland’s assignment du jour on Saturday night, had zero points and was minus-two in over 22 minutes of action. Bolland led all Blackhawks forwards with 20:25 on the ice in Game One.
After the Game, coach Joel Quenneville spoke favorably about both Kopecky and the Bolland line.
“I thought that line was very dangerous, very effective,” said Quenneville after the game. “I thought that line throughout the playoffs, with [Andrew Ladd] or now with [Kopecky] in there knows how to play defensively but their production offensively seems to be timely.”
While Kopecky was playing for the first time since the Vancouver series, Troy Brouwer was the man that replaced him. Brouwer has been dealing with a family issue since late in the regular season, and was held out of most of the Vancouver series after having no points and being minus-four against Nashville.
After bouncing back with a decent series against San Jose (one goal, one assist, plus-one), Brouwer had the best postseason game of his career and was the game’s Number One Star. Playing with Hossa and Patrick Sharp, Brouwer had two goals, one assist and was plus-two for the night.
“I just wanted to be ready,” said Brouwer. “I wanted to have a good game and really get some confidence for the series.”
The turnaround in that third period held off a late push from the Flyers and the Hawks were able to maintain their one-goal advantage through the final horn. For both teams, Saturday night will be a learning experience.
“We weren’t putting the pucks in good areas and were giving up pucks and those guys over there are too skilled to do that,” said Versteeg. “They’ll make you pay.”
While Keith realized winning Game One was a strong first step, he also acknowledges the series is far from over.
“It means a lot to win the first one,” said Keith. “But we realize it’s a long series.”
For Philadelphia, Saturday night probably created more questions than answers.
Leighton was pulled in the second and, despite his teammates claims after the game that it was a motivational move by the coaching staff, most of the Hawks goals were stoppable shots. And while Boucher’s gross numbers look better, his sprained ankle could have prohibited him from extending to block Kopecky’s game-winner.
Do the Flyers have a goalie controversy brewing? Perhaps.
But a bigger issue for the Flyers is figuring out how to get their to line on the score sheet. It was big for Philadelphia to get goals from Ville Leino, Arron Asham, Scott Hartnell and Blair Betts (14 playoff goals now between the four of them), but they will need better play from their stars.
Richards, James van Riemsdyk, Claude Giroux and Jeff Carter we all minus-two, while Braydon Coburn and Simon Gagne were minus-three on the night. None of them contributed a point.
Danny Briere had four points to lead the Flyers, but they are now in the tough position of trying to answer the “why” and “how” questions.
On Saturday night, neither team played their best hockey. It was the Blackhawks, though, that skated away with a victory and the lead in the series.
“You lose a game, the first game of the Stanley Cup Finals, it’s hard to thumb through the positives right now,” said Flyers coach Peter Laviolette. “We need to be better as a team.”