PLAYOFF GAMES are decided by moments and by momentum. It has been true in the National Hockey League since Conn Smythe. Moments and momentum - and pucks that bounce oddly in the night.

Try this one:

It is in the first period of the Flyers' 4-2 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins. There is no score. The Flyers are killing their first penalty of the game, Danny Briere for tripping.

With 7:14 gone, there is Mike Richards, swooping in, shorthanded. He has been doing it all series. You close your eyes and you see Dave Poulin, back in the day. It has become an almost magical skill for Richards, these shorthanded breaks. This time, though, he shoots wide of Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.

Suddenly, immediately, the puck and the play are coming the other way. Suddenly, immediately, the Penguins' Marian Hossa has a breakaway of his own. He is in on Flyers goaltender Marty Biron. He is in, in close, maybe 15 feet away - and Biron stones him.

Moments and momentum.

If the Flyers did not win the game right there, the tone of the next half-hour - when they built the 3-0 lead that they ended up hanging on to by a rapidly fraying rope - was set. The Penguins had built early leads in every game as they built their 3-0 lead in the series. Playing from ahead means so much to them, to all teams.

Moments and momentum.

They are undeniable.

"The whole penalty-kill there was a big moment for the team, for all of us," Biron said, walking down a Wachovia Center hallway after doing a postgame turn at the news conference podium.

"But for me, that was the save that kind of got me into the game. It was great for myself."

And so, the Flyers live another day, live to dream. They are down by 3-1 in the series, still. The Penguins have every ability to torch them, it seems. On a night when neither Sidney Crosby nor Evgeni Malkin scored a goal, the Flyers still ended up being pushed to the limit - this time, by third-line center Jordan Staal, who scored twice in the third period.

But they have life. And they have hope. And now there is word that Kimmo Timonen is at least thinking about trying to come back for Game 5 on Sunday, and that Braydon Coburn is hoping to come back on Sunday, too. It would be like rocket fuel for this team, if it were to happen.

But it is still about the goal-tender. If the Flyers are to win this thing, if they are to make this nascent dream come true, it is still about Biron. He knows it in his heart, and they all know it. They all have been watching and playing Stanley Cup hockey for years. The Flyers know what kind of team they are, so prone to trading chances. They know what the Penguins are, too, so unrelentingly dangerous.

They know. And, as Biron said, the beginning of the game last night - the moment, the momentum - only meant everything.

"You know, you get a start to the game like tonight for a goalie where you see a bunch of shots early on," Biron said. "And then, you know, you give your team a chance to go on the attack afterwards and get a bit of a lead. It was definitely a big, you know, a big thing for us.

"We know they've got offensive power. We know they can come up and score goals any time in the game. To have played the way we played in the first period really gave us a chance to kind of, you know, be ready for their two goals in the third period, and that gave us a cushion a little bit."

Biron was good, and got better, through the Flyers' first-round series against Washington. He was their MVP in the team's second-round upset of Montreal. He has been average so far in this series, neither cause nor effective in the Flyers' first three losses. That had to change.

And it did. The Penguins' two goals last night were not his fault - the first a kind of three-cushion bank shot that just sneaked by, the second a clean whistler from Staal in the slot.

"Marty was good," Flyers coach John Stevens said. "He was solid. He looked like he was really sharp seeing the puck. He looked like he read things like he had previously. So he looked like he was really confident. We knew we were going to need him to be good, and he was."

And, with that, they live. But, know this: Marty Biron will have to be even better if the Flyers are to survive Sunday. *

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