CHICAGO - For the second game in a row, just one goal separated the Flyers and Blackhawks.
For the second game in a row, the Flyers held Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane off the scoresheet.
And for the second time in the last three series, the Flyers are in a two-game hole heading back to the Wachovia Center. Two close final scores don't earn any bonus points - or make the hole less noticeable - in the quest for Lord Stanley's grail. Especially not in the Stanley Cup finals.
With two goals against in a span of 28 seconds in the second period, the Flyers fell to the Blackhawks, 2-1, last night at the United Center, despite a flurry of last-minute scoring chances in an attempt to send the game to overtime.
Thwarted by Antti Niemi, the Flyers landed in Philadelphia early this morning with a daunting, 2-0 series hole in the best-of-seven finals packed tightly in their equipment bags.
"This happened against the Boston Bruins,'' defenseman Kimmo Timonen said. "Now is not the time to panic. We've done this before. I think our third period was the best we've skated so far. That was us. That was our game. We didn't play it enough in the first two periods.''
Amazingly, the Flyers have not won a game in the finals since May 28, 1987, when J.J. Daigneault erupted the Spectrum in Game 6 against the Oilers. They lost Game 7 in Edmonton and were swept in four straight against Detroit in 1997.
That drought could end tomorrow night in Game 3 at the Wachovia Center.
"We haven't played our best yet,'' forward Claude Giroux said. "In the third period, we put more pressure on them. We wanted it. We wanted the puck more than them.''
The Flyers struggled gaining puck possession early in the first period. Despite back-and-forth action in the first 20 minutes, the Flyers made a conscious effort to not get into a track meet like Saturday's Game 1, which resulted in 11 goals.
Instead, they finished the first frame badly outnumbered in shots and scoring chances. After killing three penalties - including two in a span of 3 minutes - the Flyers went the final 13:36 of the period without a shot.
"Just because we're tightening up defensively doesn't mean no points, no offense,'' forward Danny Briere said. "I thought in the first two periods, we were way too conservative.''
The second period featured more of the same. Still tied, it took the Flyers more than 7 minutes in the second to notch a shot on Niemi. Overall, the Flyers netted just two shots in the span of 19-plus minutes, almost an entire period.
"I don't think we tested him very much,'' Briere said. "We had outside shots. We didn't create much traffic. We did not have quality chances.''
Marian Hossa broke the scoreless tie with 2:51 left in the second when he knocked a rebound behind Michael Leighton on a broken play. The Blackhawks were able to score the game's first goal against the Flyers' third defensive pairing of Lukas Krajicek and freshly dressed Latvian Oskars Bartulis, who was playing for the first time since Game 2 of the first round against New Jersey.
Chicago took advantage of the Flyers' pairing, who have not often played together in the playoffs. Krajicek and Bartulis' time together was usually limited, with Braydon Coburn or Kimmo Timonen rotating to skate with one of them every other shift so as to limit the Blackhawks' chances. The Flyers were bound to be caught at some point, not having the ability to make the last change on the road.
It was Hossa's first goal in nine games.
And it didn't take long for Chicago to strike again.
Just 28 seconds later - before the Flyers could drown out the standing, screaming 22,275 Chicago fans - an old friend struck, doubling the length of the dagger in the Flyers' sides. Ben Eager, a player whom the Flyers traded to Chicago in 2007, was the recipient of an outlet pass after a Flyers turnover in the neutral zone, which sent him in one-on-one against defenseman Matt Carle. Just before he reached the top of the circle to the left of Leighton, Eager snapped off a fast, rising shot that Leighton said he did not see in Carle's shadow.
It was Eager's first goal of the playoffs.
And as the spotlight shined down on Eager as he danced around the Flyers' net, the hill became that much tougher for the Flyers to climb.
"It's disappointing,'' captain Mike Richards said. "A mediocre second period cost us. It's tough. Tied 1-1, it's a different series. It was a good hockey game. We just didn't do the things we needed to do.''
The hole could have been halved if the Flyers were able to capitalize on their third power play of the game, when Troy Brouwer went to the box for roughing with 36 seconds left in the period.
But Niemi held the Flyers scoreless, leaving the deficit at two goals early in the third.
The Flyers were handed a chance at redemption with another power play less than 2 minutes later, this time with Patrick Sharp - another former Flyer - in the box. This time, the power play clicked.
With time running out on the man advantage, Simon Gagne corralled a puck rolling on edge and whacked it toward the net, where Jeff Carter was clouding Niemi's vision.
Gagne's wobbling, end-over-end knuckle-puck hit the back of the twine without any coaxing from Carter to cut Chicago's lead to 2-1 with 14:40 remaining in the third. There was just 1 second left on the power play when Gagne scored.
From there, the Flyers threw everything they had at Niemi to try to get the equalizer.
Richards redirected a shot that just caught Niemi's left pad with 7:44 remaining in regulation, and Gagne could not tap in the rebound.
One goal is as close as the Flyers would come. Sharp almost made it 3-1 when he hit the post of an empty net with 26 seconds left. The Flyers had one last, empty prayer after Peter Laviolette called timeout with 19.4 seconds to go. Niemi snuffed the Flyers again, making the final of his 32 saves.
"I'm not sure we should be frustrated,'' Laviolette said. "I don't think we got outplayed. [We] didn't get the results we were looking for. We had more than enough looks to tie up that game and opportunities to get out of it. It didn't happen.''
Now they will have an uphill battle fighting their way back into this series.
"We needed to play with more passion, more energy, more drive,'' defenseman Chris Pronger said. "We aren't frazzled. We aren't worried. We aren't deflated. We made a couple mistakes. That's the nature of the game. Now we need to defend our home ice.''
Some say a series is not a series until one team loses a home game. That still has not happened. The Flyers overcame a three-game series deficit against the Bruins just two rounds ago - and rode that momentum to Chicago.
The only problem: Chicago is not Boston.
"We're down 2-0. It's a hole,'' forward Dan Carcillo said. "It's going to be tough to climb back. But there is no quit in this team. This isn't anything we can't get out of.''