CHICAGO - Twenty-eight seconds. Shorter than a television commercial, longer than eternity.
How long does it take to lose a hockey game? How long does it take to challenge the fates, again?
In one 28-second span of the second period, the Flyers lost Game 2 of the Stanley Cup final. In just that amount of time - less time than it takes to sing a typical anthem, more time than it takes to recognize a dirge - Flyers goaltender Michael Leighton went from the star of the game to just another player on a team that is in an 0-2 hole in the biggest series of its life.
The final score was Blackhawks 2, Flyers 1. The series now shifts to the Wachovia Center. The odds now are much longer than they were on the day before. Like all of them, though, Leighton expressed a kind of stoic confidence.
"They won their home games," he said. "That's what we have to do - we have to go home and win our home games. Then we'll come back here and go again."
The Flyers have seen worse, of course - just a couple of weeks ago, when they trailed the Boston Bruins by three games to none in the NHL Eastern Conference semifinals. They survived that, making history. To count them out is to ignore what just happened. At the same time, to pretend that the Blackhawks aren't better than the Bruins, and that a deficit in the finals is not more emotionally crushing than any other, is to ignore the truth.
And the thing is, for 35-or-so minutes in Game 2, it appeared as if Leighton was going to lead them to something much greater. After being pulled in the second period of Game 1, after allowing five goals on 20 shots and never making a big save, Flyers coach Peter Laviolette stuck with Leighton and was rewarded with the kind of performance that a team needs to win a typical Stanley Cup game.
He just looked sharp again, in command of his crease again - and he needed to be, as the Flyers played too passively in the first period, maybe shell shocked after Game 1, and generated little on offense. And while he did not have to withstand nearly the kind of onslaught that he faced on Saturday night, Leighton was good and precise as the first period melted into the second period, as the nervousness of the night built upon itself, multiplying and then multiplying again in the United Center.
And then it happened. Twenty-eight seconds.
When it was over, someone asked if it was a bounce-back game for him. Leighton's bitter reply was, "Well, I didn't give up five and I didn't get pulled so, yeah. But we didn't win, so obviously I'm not too happy."
The first Chicago goal was scored by Marian Hossa, on a rebound in front. Troy Brouwer took the shot, Leighton made the save, and then the rebound came out to Leighton's left. Flyers defenseman Lukas Krajicek took a swipe at it, futilely, and it was Hossa instead who made contact with the puck.
That was a tough one, clearly. But it was the next one that determined the outcome. Twenty-eight seconds. Former Flyer Ben Eager, on the rush, with defenseman Matt Carle contesting, fired a rocket over Leighton's glove. In a game of this magnitude, it was crushing. Leighton could no longer be the star.
"I think we had a turnover at the blue line," he said. "He used the D as a screen and made a good shot. I didn't see him release the puck. Obviously, I saw it when it went through my D man. I'm not saying he's an Alex Ovechkin but that's how he scores a lot of his goals. He drags it and then uses the D as a screen . . .
"It was tough giving up two goals that quick. We thought we played well in the first and, boom, they scored a good goal and then we give up [another] one right away. It kind of took the wind out of our sail a little bit. But we came out in the third period, and I think we played the third period like we can. At least that's a positive."
The Flyers, to their credit, did not give up. Quite to the contrary, they dominated the third period in a way that neither team had really been able to dominate a period in the first two games. Simon Gagne scored with 1 second remaining on a power play, at 5:20 of the third period, to cut the deficit to 2-1. And the truth is, the Flyers had a half-dozen good chances after that - Gagne, Mike Richards, Claude Giroux, a bunch of them. But Chicago goaltender Antti Niemi was good when it mattered the most.
"We're still confident," Leighton said. "We played the third period like we should. We dominated the third period and just couldn't get a bounce and couldn't get a [second] goal. If we put 60 minutes like that together, we're confident we can beat any team. We're going back home and looking forward to it."
Still, the fact is the fact: in the defensive mess that was Game 1, Niemi competed better, and in the much tighter, much more traditionally played Game 2, Niemi was better again.
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