CHICAGO - The math always comes out the same. If the Flyers were going to win the Stanley Cup, they were always going to have to win at least one game in the red-lit crucible that is the United Center.
After two losses here, that seemed very possible. After this one, a 7-4 ambush in Game 5 Sunday night, a Flyers win here is much tougher to imagine.
"Maybe we got a little cocky and thought we just had to throw our sticks on the ice," Flyers captain Mike Richards said. "They capitalized on pretty much every one of their chances."
The Stanley Cup itself will be in the Wachovia Center on Wednesday night for Game 6. The Flyers' mission is to keep the big silver beast in its case. Win one at home and it all comes down to Game 7 Friday night.
Here. In Chicago.
Here in Chicago, where the Flyers have twice gotten caught up in freewheeling, high-scoring games of the kind they simply can't afford to play against the Blackhawks. Here in Chicago, where twice in three games Peter Laviolette has been forced to pull his starting goaltender.
"We seem to like to make things difficult on ourselves," said defenseman Chris Pronger, who contributed to that effort by being on the ice for six Chicago goals and in the penalty box for the other. "This is no different."
"They had a two-game lead and they lost it," said goalie Brian Boucher, who gave up three goals in two periods of relief. "They came out with desperation and we didn't match it. A three-goal lead is pretty hard to come back from."
After Game 1, which the Flyers lost by 6-5, it seemed automatic that Laviolette would come back with Michael Leighton in Game 2. The Flyers' defense was awful that night. Leighton's crime was being less than great in the face of the onslaught. Sure enough, Leighton returned to the net and was very good.
This time, it's a little less certain. Leighton looked strong early in a first-period feeding frenzy, then fell apart. None of the three goals he allowed resulted from especially impressive Chicago plays. Leighton left warm-ups early with a bruised knee but said it didn't affect his game.
Leighton gave Brent Seabrook a huge target on the first goal. The second was simply a mental lapse by the goalie. He failed to seal off the post and allowed Dave Bolland to bank the puck in off the back of his skate. The third, by Kris Versteeg, was a shot in the high slot that simply has to be stopped in the Stanley Cup Finals.
Laviolette clearly felt the same way. Boucher came into the game to start the second period. He had an opportunity to make a case for himself, to convince Laviolette to let him play a game from the opening face-off. He didn't exactly succeed, surrendering three goals - including a back-breaker on a clean shot by Patrick Sharp in the third period.
"I need to come in and shut the door," Boucher said, but the Hawks kept kicking the door down.
It is a pretty safe bet that Laviolette had a little chat with his players after that hideous first period. The coach came out to the bench all by himself, much earlier than usual. You could almost see the steam coming out of his ears all the way from the press box.
Odd as it sounds, given the 3-0 hole they were in, the Flyers really lost the game in the second period. Remember, this team fell behind 3-0 in Game 7 against Boston and just kept coming, erasing the deficit and winning, 4-3.
Once again, there was no quit in the Flyers. They beat Chicago goalie Antti Niemi at least five times in the second period. Trouble is, they scored only two goals. There were missed opportunities by Blair Betts, Richards, and Ville Leino that will haunt this team for a long time if this ends with the Blackhawks raising the Cup.
The Flyers, so accustomed to fighting their way uphill, now have to regroup and make one final charge.
"I don't know why we wouldn't have confidence," Boucher said. "We've had our backs against the wall for 21/2 months. It's a big game on Wednesday. We're going to be ready for it."
"We have a couple days here to rally the troops," Pronger said. "We've had some tough losses in the playoffs thus far."
Home ice, which was almost meaningless through the first three rounds in both conferences, has meant everything through five games in the Finals.
The Flyers have to make it count one more time, then they have to find a way to get that one elusive win in Chicago.
That seemed a whole lot more likely before the horror show that was Game 5.