AT LEAST ONE DROUGHT WAS SURE TO END WITH A DRINK. THE BLACKHAWKS HAD been without a Stanley Cup since 1961, the Flyers since '75. Each team had made five fruitless trips to the finals since its last championship. ¶ The parallels didn't end there. The series matched young captains (the Hawks' Jonathan Toews, 22, and the Flyers' Mike Richards, 25); nifty snipers (Chicago's Patrick Kane, Philadelphia's Daniel Brière); Norris Trophy-caliber defensemen (the Hawks' Duncan Keith, the Flyers' Chris Pronger); respected and accomplished coaches (Chicago's Joel Quenneville, with a .574 career winning percentage, Philadelphia's Peter Laviolette, who coached Carolina to the Cup in 2006); and callow starting goalies who began the '09-10 season as backups and had never appeared in a playoff game before this year (the Hawks' Antti Niemi, the Flyers' Michael Leighton).
The similar résumés led to a tighter series than the Blackhawks' superior regular season (112 points to Philly's 88) might have suggested. What unfolded was a compelling battle of lead changes, shifts in styles and strategic adjustments—a six-game series in which, discounting one empty-net score, five games were decided by a single goal.
May 29, United Center, Chicago
Blackhawks 6, Flyers 5
IT SEEMED AS THOUGH THE HOCKEY WORLD HAD turned upside down. Two of the NHL's top defensive teams—the Hawks had surrendered 2.5 goals per game in the playoffs, the Flyers just 2.1—had just given up a combined 11 goals. Coach Quenneville referred to the game as a "shootout at the O.K. Corral." Philadelphia's Leighton, the feel-good story of the playoffs who was coming off a three-shutout series against the Canadiens, was pulled after allowing five goals on 20 shots.
More bizarre, none of the goals came from either team's first line. Toews, Kane and Dustin Byfuglien, who made up not only the Hawks' best but also their hottest line, were each -3. The night's hero was a forward, Tomas Kopecky, who only played because of an injury to teammate Andrew Ladd. The lone player from either team who scored twice was Chicago's Troy Brouwer, who in 2009 didn't score at all in 17 playoff matches, and get this: The Flyers, the NHL's most penalized team during the regular season, did not take a penalty all night. "That was a weird game," said Philadelphia forward Jeff Carter, whose team squandered three leads. "Bad ice, pucks taking bounces everywhere, mad scrambles."
The teams combined for five goals in the first period. The Flyers potted three of them, including second-chance scores by forwards Scott Hartnell and Brière, as the Hawks' Niemi struggled with rebounds. Chicago's early highlight came shorthanded, when the Flyers' Simon Gagné sent a hard pass back to the point that skipped over teammate Braydon Coburn's stick. The Hawks' Dave Bolland corralled it and skated down ice to beat Leighton on a breakaway.
Throughout the game pucks skidded and took odd detours on a surface that often looked like a slice of Emmentaler. "The ice was soft," said the Flyers' Arron Asham, who scored with 1:11 left in the second period to tie the game 5-5. "There were some bad bounces, but I'm not sure you can blame coverage mistakes on bad ice."
Not even the game's final goal was free of a strange twist. Shortly before netting the winner with 8:25 gone in the third period, Kopecky, who had scored all of 22 goals in 257 regular-season games and who had been a healthy scratch during the Western Conference finals, touched the puck when an errant pass bounced off him just before he left the bench to go onto the ice. Officials never caught it to blow the play dead, and 24 seconds later Kopecky beat Leighton's replacement, Brian Boucher, with a low, stoppable shot from the left side. "Save this one for further viewing," Pronger later said of the frenetic finals opener. "Not too many more like it."