— AGO - Momentum was easy to get and hard to keep during Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals at the United Center on Saturday. Momentum was in the sold-out and mind-numbingly loud United Center, but it rattled around like a loose puck in the corner. It ricocheted back and forth through the neutral zone. It got point-blank opportunities time and again.
It could usually be found — however fleetingly — in the back of the net.
Momentum was everywhere, but it was like holding a snowball in your hand on a late-May afternoon that felt more like July or August here. Momentum is everything in hockey. On Saturday, during a 6-5 Blackhawks win that was as perplexing as it was thrilling, keeping it was was like holding water in your hand.
What this strange night meant for the series is anybody’s guess. Expect the unexpected. Predict the unpredictable. Draw conclusions at your own risk. Better yet, throw this one out before Monday’s Game 2 (8 p.m. ET on NBC). How else to explain a ping-pong game that started with the first five-goal first period in a Stanley Cup opener since 1982? How else to explain how the Blackhawks scored six goals without a power play, or how Tomas Kopecky scored the game-winner after being a healthy scratch for the five previous playoff games?
How else to digest the fact that neither team’s top scoring line scored in an 11-goal game and combined to finish minus-16?
“I don’t think either coach drew up that game plan, but it was exciting for the fans,” the Blackhawks’ Patrick Sharp said. “We may need pacemakers for Game 2.”
The Blackhawks are a little deeper, a little faster and don’t mind pushing their advantage even if it means giving up five goals. There are ways to beat these young and skilled Blackhawks, even if the Sharks couldn’t solve the puzzle during the Western Conference finals. As high-scoring as the Flyers themselves can be, allowing Chicago to play its fast-breaking, up-and-down style is not the way to do it.
“We’re a team that likes to play a fast-paced game,” said Troy Brouwer, who had two goals and an assist. “It’s not much of a mystery. I don’t know that we want to slow the game down at all. We just want to be able to play our game and just be able to do what makes us successful.”
The Flyers hadn’t played in the Stanley Cup finals since 1997. The ’Hawks haven’t been here since ’92. Perhaps being absent from the biggest stage and brightest lights made both teams play sloppily inside their own zones.
Expect improving defensively and in net to be the focus for both coaches heading into Game 2 here Monday. If the Flyers make better adjustments, they could even the series. If they don’t, they could be looking at yet another seemingly insurmountable deficit during their storybook season.
“We were too loose in front of our net,” said Flyers coach Peter Laviolette, who could’ve been speaking for ’Hawks coach Joel Quenneville as well. “They had too many point-blank opportunities. We’ve got to do better defensively.”
Neither goalie played their best playoff game, that’s for sure. Michael Leighton was replaced by Brian Boucher late in the second period, which means who starts in net for Philadelphia on Monday night becomes a big issue.
It wasn’t all the goalies’ fault, either. Take the goal that made it 5-5 with 1:11 left in the second period. The Flyers made four unchallenged passes to set up Aaron Asham’s one-timer. Antti Niemi didn’t have a chance. It was the same when the Blackhawks scored the game-winner. The Flyers were out of position and out of sync defensively, as they had often been on the night.
The Blackhawks weren’t much better.
“I felt pretty good at first, but after giving up five goals, it’s not easy to keep your focus,” Niemi said.
Niemi kept his focus. That, along with a strong third period by the Hawks in general, was the difference. He made several key saves in the third, including gloving an attempt by Danny Briere with just over two minutes left and denying a howitzer shot from Chris Pronger just before the final horn sounded.
“The first game is always huge because you want to get the momentum going in the big games like this,” said the Blackhawks’ Marian Hossa, who became the first player in history to play in three straight Stanley Cup finals for three different teams. “It’s all about momentum in the final. When you grab the momentum, that’s what’s huge.”
Momentum? What momentum? If Game 1 was any indication, the team with momentum will be the team that wins the opening faceoff of Game 2.