CHICAGO - If the Flyers are going to win their first Stanley Cup since 1975, they are going to have to dig out of a hole that has gotten deeper - and more challenging - with each game.
They stormed the net in the third period Monday night, but they fell just short, dropping a 2-1 decision to the hanging-on Chicago Blackhawks at the percolating United Center.
Chicago, which was outshot by a 15-4 margin in the third period, leads the Finals, two games to none. The series resumes Wednesday at the Wachovia Center.
Marian Hossa and former Flyer Ben Eager scored 28 seconds apart late in the second period as Chicago won for the 10th time in its last 11 playoff games, including the last seven.
Blackhawks goalie Antti Niemi, rebounding from a dismal performance in Game 1, made 32 saves - many of which were acrobatic - to key the hard-earned victory.
"It's not the way we wanted to start the series," said captain Mike Richards, who set up the Flyers' lone goal, "but we're going home, and we've played well there."
They will carry momentum from a dominating third period.
"We started to play the way we should have been playing the whole series," center Claude Giroux said. "We showed we have a lot of character in this room."
Simon Gagne sliced the lead to 2-1 with a power-play goal. Gagne's shot from the left circle went off Hossa and skidded past Niemi with 14 minutes, 40 seconds left.
After Gagne's goal, the Flyers swarmed Niemi. The rookie goalie made several big saves, including a clever redirect by Richards from the slot and a rebound by Gagne with a little under eight minutes left. Niemi also robbed Ville Leino from in close with 2:11 to play, and he stoned Gagne out front with 50 seconds remaining.
In Stanley Cup history, home clubs sweeping the first two games have a 31-2 series record (a .939 winning percentage). One of the teams that overcame those odds was Pittsburgh, which did it last year.
The Flyers are good at overcoming astronomical odds; they erased a 3-0 series deficit against Boston in the conference semifinals.
All told, the Flyers outshot the Hawks, 33-26.
"We certainly didn't want to spend that much time in our end. They have a lot of guys who make plays," said Chicago coach Joel Quenneville, whose team got six blocked shots from defenseman Duncan Keith. "Our goalie gave us a W."
Said Giroux: "We gave ourselves a chance to win, but their goalie came up with the saves at the end. . . . We're going home now, and I know our fans will be ready."
Both teams tightened up considerably after their Game 1 shoot-out, but it was Chicago that took control as it scored goals 28 seconds apart late in the second period.
With Flyers defenseman Lukas Krajicek unable to clear the puck, Hossa lifted in a rebound to put the Blackhawks ahead, 1-0, with 2:51 left in the second period.
"A garbage goal," said a smiling Hossa, who broke an eight-game Finals scoring drought. "I've been looking for some ugly goals like that to get going."
"It seemed like we had the coverage and positioning there," Flyers coach Peter Laviolette said, "but we just didn't get the puck."
Just 28 seconds later, after an Arron Asham turnover, Eager fired a rocket from the right circle that sailed over the left shoulder of goalie Michael Leighton.
About 10 minutes earlier, the Flyers nearly snapped a scoreless tie as Gagne sent Richards in on a breakaway. But Niemi made a right pad save to deny the Flyers' captain.
Midway through the second period, Dan Carcillo, a healthy scratch the previous three games, had two shots during his best shift of the night. Niemi stopped Carcillo's second shot, a blast from the top of the left circle, with a fully extended glove save with 9:54 left in the period.
"I thought Danny did a good job. He skated, he forechecked, he made some good hits," Laviolette said. "I thought he brought some energy."
Gagne had predicted the Flyers would be "a lot better defensively" than in their 6-5 loss in Game 1.
He was right. The Flyers cleared the slot - a problem in the opener - and forced the Hawks to the outside.
In a scoreless first period, Leighton had to make nine saves, and most of them were routine stops as the Flyers kept the Hawks on the perimeter.
The Flyers managed just three shots - none on a dreadful power play - in the opening 20 minutes. Giroux had the club's best opening-period chance, but his blast from the high slot caromed off the right post - causing the second-year player to look skyward in disbelief with 12:34 left in the first.
Chicago got its first power play of the series when Blair Betts cross-checked Adam Burish with 5:12 to play in the first period. The Hawks also got a power play late in the period when the Flyers were whistled for two infractions, including Carcillo's unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty, to Chicago's one.
The Flyers' penalty-killing units were superb, keeping Chicago scoreless and limiting the Hawks to a total of three shots on three power-play opportunities.
There were plenty of sideshows in the first period: Carcillo colliding with teammate Jeff Carter and sending the center sprawling at center ice, and defenseman Chris Pronger getting into heated discussions with Eager and Jonathan Toews. At one point, after the whistle had blown, Pronger made the universal "keep yapping" motion with his fingers to Eager.
Pronger and Eager were jawing at each other throughout the night. Seconds after the game ended, they continued to yap away.
"Just a little postgame chat," Eager said. "He's been picking up pucks after the game, and I just told him he can keep it."