CHICAGO - There were better ways to start the longest road trip of the season than having to circle around Chicago while authorities tried to clear an errant plane off a snowy runway at Midway International Airport.

By the time the Flyers were diverted and landed at O'Hare International, the only thing left to do was retreat to the hotel for some food and a nap.

If they could have stayed there, they would have been better off.

The travel-weary Flyers, who couldn't skate before the game and hadn't practiced since Tuesday, became cannon fodder for the rested Blackhawks and lost, 5-1, in front of the largest hockey crowd in United Center history.

The 22,712 fans were treated to a fast, two-goal, first-period Blackhawk lead, a dominant second period in which the Flyers were held to a single shot, and a penalty-filled, three-quick-goal third period and an overwhelming victory.

"For whatever reason, we had some travel problems today and we were to ready to use that as an excuse," said Flyers coach John Stevens. "You can't do that. [Chicago] has only lost one game at home for a reason.

"They're a good team and I thought we were cheating all over the ice. We ended up taking too many penalties and they have too much skill to do that."

Mike Richards scored the Flyers' lone goal and ended the game with fighting and instigator penalties, leaving for the locker room with a little fewer than 7 minutes to play.

It was not a good night.

After the game, it also seemed that there would be some injuries to deal with. Scott Hartnell limped out of the locker room, and Kimmo Timonen had a soft cast on his right foot after chipping a bone in the ankle.

"It will depend on how Kimmo feels, but it looks like [he'll be out] a minimum of a week," said general manager Paul Holmgren. "Hartnell broke his big toe blocking a shot. We'll see how he feels, but it's a very slim chance [he'll play tonight]."

The difficult flight and the holiday break appeared to slow the Flyers at the start. Chicago was clearly ready to play and jumped to an early lead.

"We knew we had to weather a storm early on and for two periods we did a good job of trying to keep it close, and then they got that goal five-on-three," said goalie Marty Biron. "But you're 2-1 after 40 minutes and we didn't play our best game.

"They had the layoff, we had the layoff, you can't use it as an excuse. I've seen teams have worse travel days and come in and play their best game."

Biron, who hadn't played since Dec. 13, was rusty and left a fat rebound off a Martin Havlat shot for Andrew Ladd and a 1-0 Blackhawks lead.

Former Flyer Patrick Sharp scored the second goal off a Claude Giroux defensive-zone turnover. Patrick Kane got the gift and sent it across ice to Sharp who snapped it high and into the net, giving Chicago a 2-0 lead less than 3 minutes into the first.

Richards brought the Flyers back and helped build some energy and momentum. After a penalty kill, Jeff Carter lobbed a long, cross-ice pass to Richards, who skated deep and wide and passed out front to Arron Asham. His shot was stopped by Nikolai Khabibulin, but Richards got the rebound and shot it in, cutting the lead to 2-1.

"[Carter] made a good play to me going down the left side," Richards said. "I knew Arron Asham was going to the net and I just threw it there and it ended up on my stick somehow.

"We knew this was going to be a tough one especially coming off of a little bit of a break and no morning skate. You're going to be a little stiff but I thought we responded well. We got the puck to the net a little more, played the body and it ended up working for us."

The momentum didn't last into the second period, even with a power play to start.

In fact, the Flyers were so bad in the period, they were held without a shot until 1:49 was left to play. That was the only shot they had to the Blackhawks' 14.

At least Biron was on and held the score to 2-1.

The Flyers started the third period on a five-on-three penalty kill, gave up a goal to Brian Campbell, fell to 3-1, and then went right back on a five-on-three penalty kill.

Rookie Kris Versteeg found the open top of the net and put Chicago up 4-1, and with the Flyers in full retreat, David Bolland made it 5-1.

As soon as they could, the Flyers got to their buses and back to the team charter to fly to Columbus for a game tonight against the Blue Jackets, former Flyer coach Ken Hitchcock and traded teammate R.J. Umberger.

"We didn't have as much energy as we would have wanted," said Joffrey Lupul, who took a late second-period penalty that carried over and helped start the disastrous third. "We were still hanging in there 2-1 at the end of two periods and we made some mistakes, we took some penalties we shouldn't have. I took one."

And to make the day complete, fog around Chicago grounded all flights, and the Flyers couldn't fly to Columbus until today. *