DANNY BRIERE exhaled, finally.

"It's a big relief," Briere said. "We escaped."

Related stories

In a span of 8 minutes in the third period last night, a big lead somehow turned into a big relief. The Flyers held a three-goal edge early in the third period and slowly squandered it, leaving nails and minds worn thin at the Wachovia Center.

But Jeff Carter's empty-net goal with 24.6 seconds left gave the Flyers a 5-3 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup finals, the first game in the series decided by more than one goal.

And for the first time since the puck dropped in Game 1, the Flyers and Blackhawks are on level ground. The series is tied, 2-2, with Game 5 tomorrow night at the United Center in Chicago.

Behind three first-period tallies, the Flyers won their second home game in a row in the series after dropping Games 1 and 2 in Chicago.

Now, the Flyers' Stanley Cup dreams are more than a heartbeat. More than a prayer. More than a miracle. They are just two wins away from parading down Broad Street with Lord Stanley's chalice for the first time since 1975.

Despite a close call late, the Flyers are now 7-0 during the playoffs in Games 4-7 of a series.

Mike Richards single-handedly got the Flyers on the board just 4:35 into the first period when he pickpocketed defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson behind Chicago's net and tucked a backhand through Antti Niemi's pads.

Richards' goal came just 5 seconds after Tomas Kopecky was whistled for high-sticking. It was the Flyers' sixth power-play goal of the series.

"It was huge to get that goal," forward Simon Gagne said, referring to the fact that the Flyers have won more than 80 percent of their playoff games when scoring first. "It was a big effort by Mike to take the puck away from their defenseman and put it in."

After Richards' goal, the Blackhawks took over and limited the Flyers' chances for a chunk of 10 minutes. But the Flyers beat Niemi on their next shot, 10:13 after Richards' soft backhand.

Suiting up for his first game after sitting out two as a healthy scratch, James van Riemsdyk started the play by powering around Chicago's net and blasting a spin-around shot. Van Riemsdyk's shot rebounded to Claude Giroux, who tried his own spin-a-rama in front of Niemi. That hit Hjalmarsson's skate and kicked out to a streaking Matt Carle, who one-timed the loose puck into the empty net for his first goal of the playoffs.

Patrick Sharp drew the Blackhawks within one goal - the margin during 96 percent of the first three games of the series - with 1:28 remaining in the back-and-forth first period. Sharp knocked a Duncan Keith slap shot out of midair and redirected it just above Michael Leighton's extended left pad.

But the Flyers had an answer for their former player's goal. And it came just 51 seconds later. With 37 ticks to play in the first frame, Kimmo Timonen must have been surprised to see Giroux standing so open to Niemi's left. Giroux was untouched and out of sight to Niemi and Keith, Chicago's top defender.

Instead of shooting, Timonen fired a shot-pass to Giroux on the backdoor, and Giroux slam-dunked it into the waiting net to give the Flyers a 3-1 lead.

That score held up for the entire second period.

After sustaining a bone-rattling, blindside check from Brian Campbell in the first period, Ville Leino hung in the game to give the Flyers a three-goal lead when his shot from the slot bounced off Kris Versteeg's back and bounced over Niemi 6:43 into the third.

Leino's goal was his 16th point of the playoffs, breaking the record he shared with Brian Propp (1980) for most playoff points by a rookie.

"Guys are giving me a hard time," Leino said. "I'm 26 now. I played in the finals last year [with Detroit] and the playoffs last year. I don't really feel like a rookie. I guess rules are rules."

The Flyers made a rookie mistake, resting on the laurels of a three-goal lead in the third period. Despite outshooting the Flyers, 35-31, the Blackhawks seemed to be out of the game in the third period. But that changed in a hurry.

Dave Bolland knocked in a power-play goal - when Chicago held a two-man advantage with Braydon Coburn and Scott Hartnell in the box simultaneously - with 7:59 to play, cutting the Flyers' lead to 4-2.

"We had a stupid penalty there," Leino said. "They scored on a five-on-three. It was a fresh game again. It was pretty stressful at the end of the game on the bench."

Campbell made Flyers fans nervous when his shot trickled behind Leighton with just 4:10 remaining in the third and cut the lead to just one. All 20,304 were on the edge of their seats - and chomping their nails - for the final 4 minutes, as the ice was completely slanted in Chicago's favor. During that time, Leighton said he checked the clock "every 10 seconds."

Flyers coach Peter Laviolette noticed that the Blackhawks' system changed in the third period.

"It caught us off-guard a little bit that they were that aggressive," Laviolette said. "They started being aggressive in the neutral zone. They started pinching down the wall. I think there's opportunities there we can exploit if they're going to play that way. We'll be ready for that next time."

Whether Chicago's modus operandi was different, this series is officially different. It is knotted, and the Flyers are in the driver's seat.

"We felt good after the two games in Chicago," Gagne said. "It's tight hockey. We thought at 4-1 we would be able to get away with it. It's the Stanley Cup final. They're going to give everything, we're going to give everything."

Said Pronger: "Momentum swings are always going to be part of a series. We understand that. It's up to us to build on what we have."

For more news and analysis, read Frank Seravalli's blog, Frequent Flyers, at http://go.philly.com/frequentflyers.