THIS GAME, his hair actually seemed to be on fire. From his first shift, from his first hit, to the very scary and exciting end, Scott Hartnell was the player everyone around here once fell in love with, banging into people, into things, spinning all over the ice like a speeding Jeep hitting black ice.

Hockey's Muppet set the tempo for last night's 4-3 overtime victory for the Flyers, laid out a road map for how they can not only climb back into the series, but gain control of it. The Flyers' first two goals were his, pure and simple, offshoots of an effort that desperately needs to be duplicated by some of their notorious absentees this series, including, but not exclusive to, members of their first line.

Hard checks, legal checks. Hustle plays. Clogging up the front of Chicago's net the way the Hawks have done on the other end, making things nasty for their rookie goaltender Antti Niemi. It's rarely pretty and it's often comical, and it sure doesn't hurt that he looks like something Jim Henson created while doing it.

"I mean, just look at his hair," Danny Briere was saying after last night's game.

"Scottie doesn't do pretty."

Consider Game 3's first goal. Falling away from the front of the net, his stick parallel to the ice, Hartnell somehow slid the puck backwards to Briere alone on the other side, who fired it into a wide-open net.

Or the second goal, scored when Hartnell got his stick on Chris Pronger's blast from the point, scored while taking sticks to the back, scored while stumbling around.

"You can say he falls down a lot," mused Briere. "But one of the reasons is he is so willing to go into all those dirty areas."

That was coach Peter Laviolette's mandate before the game. "To cause more havoc and more chaos" for Niemi.

"To make sure we get right in front of him. Cause more havoc, cause more havoc and more chaos for him."

"We needed to come out physical, jumping and skating," Hartnell said. "I think we did a nice job coming out hard."

He did anyway. So too did Ville Leino, who tied the game just 20 seconds after that line's eagerness had backfired into Patrick Kane's breakaway goal. And Briere set up the overtime winner, sliding a sweet pass to Matt Carle at the point, who sent it toward Claude Giroux, who redirected it past Niemi.

They were all over the ice, those three, and they covered, at least for a day, the continued unproductivity of the Flyers' top line. The Flyers had a great shot at their first two-goal lead of this series at the start of the second period after Leino, double-shifted at times last night, fed Mike Richards across the high slot. Richards' shot sailed over the open side of the net.

But the Simon Gagne that was such a presence against Boston and so effective against Montreal has struggled so far with the pace of this series. So too has Jeff Carter, who is clearly still not the player who led the team in scoring for most of the season.

Carter has struggled with the speed and the physicality. He was on the ice for two goals last night, was a turnover machine by trying too hard to make the plays he can do in his sleep when healthy. But he is not, and he would do himself and his team a favor by keeping it simple then, hitting, falling, playing, well, like his hair, too, was on fire.

Teams that come thisclose to etching their name on Stanley Cups often speak in that sort of language. A bounce here, a break there. The Flyers have totaled an incredible amount of near-misses this series, and when a puck bounced off the post in overtime and slid on the goal line last night, there was an undeniable sense of doom in the building.

Teams that win the Cup? They shake that stuff off, win anyway, make it a foundation for better things. It's only one game, at home, and it's hard to imagine it as anything more than a footnote without the first line joining in at some point.

Hartnell and Leino bought them another game. The Flyers lived off the heroics of those two last night, lived off the heroics of a player who wasn't here when the season started and another who many wanted gone before it ended.

It's what this time of the year is about, second chances and redemption.

And why it's some of the best theater in all of sports.

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