THIS IS HOW you make 48 years of frustration 49.
You give away a game, as the Blackhawks did last night, 5-3.
You forfeit the momentum that two wins at home afforded you. You lose the swagger earned by seven straight road wins in the playoffs; the Blackhawks now have lost two straight to the Flyers, and the best-of-seven series stands even.
You plant an acorn of doubt in your revived, worshipful fan base, which hasn't seen a Stanley Cup since JFK was in office. The United Center might rock tomorrow night at the start of Game 5, but will that energy dissipate if the Flyers make a game of it again?
"We really look forward to going back to Chicago," said star defenseman Duncan Keith, who, again, was wonderful, but was left wondering about the rest of his club.
"We all could pick up our play. And our desperation level," Keith said. "This is it. The finals. There's nothing to conserve our energy for."
"It's a good wakeup call for us," said left wing Andrew Ladd.
Well put, considering the Hawks seemed to doze through the first 50 minutes of last night's game. But that's how you keep the trophy out of your city.
More specifically . . .
You take six penalties in the first 50 minutes, overtly, the first two in the offensive zone. Those were the sort of fouls the referee cannot overlook, and placed in peril a shaky penalty-killing unit.
Your captain remains MIA. Jonathan Toews, again, was virtually absent - except for his giveaway that led to the Flyers' third goal. By the third period, Toews was split from wingers Patrick Kane and Dustin Byfuglien, the trio having accounted for only four points in 11 periods plus an overtime.
You get your pocket picked and zone out, the way defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson and goalie Antti Niemi did on the Flyers' first goal.
You allow another softie in the third; a big one, it turned out.
The Blackhawks were flathawks most of last night, lacking in energy, skating as if they were burning extra ice time at a local barn instead of trying to claw to within a win of the Cup.
Ladd began the tomfoolery. He had missed the past three games with an upper body injury and announced his return with ill-conceived authority. He rammed Braydon Coburn 36 seconds into the game. Coburn, standing in the crease, collapsed onto Flyers goalie Michael Leighton, and, just like that, the Flyers were on the power play.
"I know he's a physical guy, and he just got back," Coburn said. "If that's what he wants to do, that's fine."
The Flyers didn't score, but they soon returned to the man advantage when Tomas Kopecky caught Jeff Carter in the mouth with a high stick. This time, the Flyers scored, in an embarrassing manner.
Mike Richards picked Hjalmarsson's pocket as Hjalmarsson cruised behind his goal. Richards then sent a weak backhander at Niemi, who seemed unaware of the possession change. The puck drifted between his legs and gave the Flyers a 1-0 lead.
Ten minutes later, Hjalmarsson failed to clear the puck, and the Flyers scored again.
"Tough start certainly," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "A couple of plays there, you would like to have back."
"I'll just try to forget the first period," Hjalmarsson said.
He improved and the penalty kill stiffened, finally, and necessarily for the Hawks. When Richards scored, they had allowed four goals on 12 penalty kills. They were flawless the rest of the game.
After Patrick Sharpe hamstrung Richards with a slash well behind the play in the second. After Brent Seabrook crosschecked Carter in the open ice in the third.
"I think they wanted to set a physical tone," Coburn said. "It's the playoffs. Emotions get high. You've got to be smart about it."
The Blackhawks might have the offensive talent to be sloppy, or vengeful, or dumb, and still win. They have not displayed it since they scored six times in Game 1.
Dave Bolland scored last night on a five-on-three advantage, the first time the Hawks scored on a power play in nine chances in the series.
That made it 4-2. It might have been 3-2 instead, but Niemi had seen a floater pass him off the stick of Ville Leino earlier in the third. Or maybe he never did see it.
It might have been 2-2, really, if the Blackhawks hadn't lost focus after they scored with 88 seconds to play in the first.
That cut the lead to 2-1. Fifty-one seconds later, Claude Giroux made it 3-1.
"That's just stupid," said Toews, who, on the ice at the time, had a firsthand view; he went for Kimmo Timonen's shot fake from the point.
Toews was minus-2 last night, minus-5 for the series.
At 4-2, the Flyers ducked and covered. The Hawks scored again with 4:10 to play.
That made the remainder only marginally more interesting. Carter's empty-net goal ended the drama . . . and reminded Chicagoans about fear and frustration all over again. *