MAYBE YOU HAD a strong feeling it was going to be the Flyers' night when Matt Carle scored.
Carle hadn't scored a goal in the playoffs, despite a dozen assists, but he gave the Flyers their first two-goal lead of the series with 5 minutes, 12 seconds left in the first period of last night's 5-3 Game 4 Stanley Cup finals victory over the Blackhawks, which evened the series, 2-2, going back to Chicago. It was Carle's first goal since April 11, which, by now, must seem like sometime last year.
A sequence that started with back-to-back spinning moves with the puck by resurrected rookie forward James van Riemsdyk and solid second-year man Claude Giroux ended with Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson trying to clear the puck at the right post and passing it right onto Carle's stick in the slot. Hjalmarrson was already having an unfortunate evening, which began when Mike Richards picked his pocket for the opening goal, just 4:35 into the game. Quickly, Carle added to Hjalmarsson's woes, and made it pretty clear this was not going to be a good-luck night for Chicago goalie Antti Niemi. After Carle netted the puck, Niemi looked up at the scoreboard and realized he had allowed two goals on five shots.
"It was pretty surprising," to get the puck, Carle said. He said he went to the net thinking he might net a Giroux rebound, not a Blackhawks clearing attempt.
It was a night of fortunate Flyers bounces against an oddly subdued Chicago team, at least until the final 8 minutes.
"We wanted to come out and get a good start. I don't think we really played that well, but we found ourselves up 3-1 after the first period," Carle said after the Flyers ensured that the home team in this series would remain unbeaten. "We just wanted to build on that throughout the rest of the game. Got a pretty big lead there [4-1, 6:43 into the third] and kind of let up a little bit, and they showed what they can do offensively there."
Carle is the other white meat, the guy who plays next to Chris Pronger. This means he gets tons of ice time (24:35 last night) but very little credit. Reporters from across the United States and Canada did not spend the off day between Game 3 and Game 4 asking the Blackhawks if Matt Carle was getting inside their heads. If Carle plays well, the subtext is always that his game-dominating partner is the reason. He is like a pitcher who gets five runs a game scored behind him (which would mean he isn't a Phillie these days, but let's not go there).
Carle's teammates appreciate him; that's why they awarded him the Pelle Lindbergh Trophy as the team's most improved player this season, Pronger's role in his improvement notwithstanding.
Last night, Carle was calm and steady, blocking four shots (the Flyers blocked 28 overall, to Chicago's 11) and getting the puck down the ice, especially on the penalty kill, which had been perfect in the series until the Blackhawks were handed a two-man advantage, trailing 4-1 in the third.
Pronger has gotten a lot of credit for shutting down Chicago scoring stars Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, but obviously, they're playing against Carle, as well.
"Prongs brings the physical presence, and I'll kind of come in and try to take the puck after he throws the big hit. It seems to be working out pretty well so far," Carle said. "They kind of mixed up their lines a little bit in the third period; I'm sure they'll make a few adjustments, and we'll have to do the same."
Playing with Pronger has given Carle, a 25-year-old former Sharks and Lightning D-man, "a little bit more composure out there," he said. "I think I play a little bit more aggressive defensively. He's just a guy you can watch on and off the ice and learn a lot from."
It was a strong night for all four of the Flyers' top defensemen, at least until those frantic final minutes. Braydon Coburn logged 23:02 of even-strength time, a team-high 27:52 overall. Pronger, the series' dominant player so far, was plus-4 with six hits and three blocks. Kimmo Timonen logged 26:59, with four hits and five blocks.