The Flyers needed a win - in a dreaded shootout, no less - just to qualify for the playoffs.
Now, improbably, they are only two victories away from securing the franchise's third Stanley Cup.
The Flyers, with winger Ville Leino setting franchise playoff records for rookie scorers, hung on and defeated the Chicago Blackhawks, 5-3, and evened the Stanley Cup Finals at the reverberating Wachovia Center on Friday night.
The best-of-seven series is tied at two games apiece, and Game 5 is Sunday night in Chicago.
The Flyers, 9-0 in Games 4 through 7 during this year's playoffs, built a 3-1 first-period lead on goals by Mike Richards (power play), Matt Carle, and Claude Giroux.
A third-period goal by Leino - it deflected off the back of the Hawks' Kris Versteeg - made it 4-1 with 13 minutes, 17 seconds left and proved to be the game-winner because of a furious Chicago rally.
"I got into the middle, and I kind of missed the shot a little bit, and it took a perfect bounce off his back," Leino said with a smile. "It was a total team effort tonight. We're playing as a team. Everybody is contributing."
The goal gave Leino 16 playoff points, one more than the rookie record set by Brian Propp in the 1980 playoffs. He also has seven playoff goals, one more than Mel Bridgman scored in 1976.
Leino had missed about 10 first-period minutes Friday after a vicious open-ice hit by Brian Campbell. Afterward, Leino said he had the wind knocked out of him and suffered some back spasms. "Nothing serious," he said.
The Flyers have won 10 straight home games against Chicago since 1996. It was their second consecutive win in the series, and they handed Chicago back-to-back road losses for the first time since late November.
But it was far from easy.
A 5-on-3 power-play goal by Dave Bolland cut the lead to 4-2 with 7:59 left, but Michael Leighton made two key stops on the remaining 5-on-4 advantage to protect the two-goal lead.
Chicago got to within 4-3 on Campbell's goal with 4:10 to go.
And then the Hawks applied pressure.
And more pressure.
Leighton stopped Brent Seabrook's redirect with 2:15 left, and the Flyers got sloppy in their own zone and couldn't clear the puck for long stretches.
The sellout crowd couldn't exhale until Jeff Carter's empty-net goal iced it with 25 seconds left.
The Hawks, aiming for their first Cup since 1961, had been 4-0 this year in playoff games following losses and had outscored their opponents, 14-3. But the Flyers took control early and would not allow Chicago to get into a rhythm - until the game's latter stages.
In their history, the Flyers are 13-6 in series that are tied at two games each; the Hawks are 13-18 in series that start 2-2.
The Flyers blocked 28 shots - 17 more than the Hawks. Kimmo Timonen blocked five to lead the way, and Chris Pronger had six hits, three blocked shots, and was plus-4.
Flyers coach Peter Laviolette has taken verbal jabs at Chicago goalie Antti Niemi, saying that it's difficult for a rookie to excel with the weight of the Blackhawks' championship drought - 49 years - on his shoulders.
Laviolette may have gotten into Niemi's head. The 26-year-old goalie stole Game 2 with a brilliant third period, but he hasn't been nearly as sharp since Laviolette went on the offensive before Game 3.
Niemi allowed three goals on just eight shots in Friday's first period as the Flyers built a 3-1 lead.
Then again, defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson didn't help Niemi's cause as his two turnovers led to the Flyers' first two goals.
With the Flyers on the power play, Richards stripped the puck from the defenseman near the side of the net and scored on a spin-around shot after just 4:35.
"It's nice to help the team, especially on the power play," said Richards after his first goal of the Finals. "He hung on to the puck a little bit too long."
About 10 minutes later, a ferocious forecheck by James van Riemsdyk, Arron Asham, and Giroux enabled the Flyers to keep the puck in Chicago's end, and when Hjalmarsson's clearing attempt ended on the stick of Carle, the defenseman fired a shot from the high slot past Niemi to make it 2-0.
The Hawks got to within 2-1 on a goal by Patrick Sharp with 1:28 left in the first period. Sharp's long shot appeared to deflect off the stick of defenseman Braydon Coburn and past Leighton.
It took the Flyers 51 seconds to answer.
Timonen wound up for a shot, drawing Niemi a few feet out of the net. But Giroux sneaked around from behind the net - Niemi apparently didn't see him - and Timonen put a pass right on the center's stick.
Giroux, on the doorstep to the left of the goal, had a wide-open net as Niemi couldn't get back in time. He rammed in the goal, putting the Flyers ahead, 3-1, with 37 seconds left in the first period.
"It was a great play by Kimmo; he has great vision," said Giroux, whose overtime goal gave the Flyers a 4-3 win in Game 3. "It was huge to get a goal back after they scored late in the period."
After Friday's morning skate, Laviolette was asked about the Flyers trying to rattle Niemi with traffic in front.
Laviolette took the bait.
"Well, I said before that we feel there's some weaknesses we can exploit there," he said. He later said, "The pressure, I think, is more for teams that are expected to win, as the Blackhawks are. Everybody picked them before the series."
After a shaky start, Niemi made several quality saves in the second period to keep the Hawks within 3-1.
Laviolette said there wasn't much difference in how the Flyers played in their two losses in Chicago and in their two wins in Philadelphia.
"I thought we could have won both games" in Chicago, he said. "I like our game. I like what we're doing. . . . Our game hasn't changed. Just the score changed."
And the tension-filled Finals have come down to a best-of-three to determine who lifts the Cup.
Friday night's game ended too late for this edition. For coverage, go to http://go.philly.com/flyersEndText