BUFFALO - The skate doesn't fit all that comfortably on the other foot.
Not so long ago, Buffalo Sabres coach Lindy Ruff was lamenting that the big, bad Flyers were playing too rough during a playoff series between the teams. Now, in a game the Sabres absolutely had to have in order to survive in this first-round series, it was the Flyers who came out nicked, bruised and complaining.
"They're getting away with murder out there," Flyers captain Mike Richards said. "And we got called every time [Dan Carcillo] was on the ice. It's frustrating, but we've got to battle through it. It's a physical series."
It is now.
Richards was called for a stunning five-minute penalty for elbowing Patrick Kaleta at the end of the second period. It was a bang-bang play. Richards was pinned along the boards near the Flyers' bench and Kaleta was coming toward him. Richards wheeled with his elbow up, hit Kaleta in the head, and dropped the scrappy forward to the ice.
Richards was furious at the call, smashing his stick on the doorway as he left the ice for the locker room. But it was his perception that the Sabres were having their way physically that led to the penalty.
"I saw him take a couple of hard strides at me," Richards said. "I had to protect myself. They're not going to call anything, so I had to protect myself."
Like the NFL, the NHL is doing its best to legislate head shots out of the sport. There have been a couple of suspensions already in these playoffs. But those have come from high-speed collisions where one player clearly targets another from the blind side.
You never know with the NHL. One man, Colin Campbell, metes out justice with little apparent logic. But a five-minute penalty, given the circumstances, was probably more than enough penalty for this infraction. Depriving the Flyers of their captain for a game would be overkill.
That said, the Sabres have gotten the better of the physical play in this series. With no Chris Pronger and no Jody Shelley, the Flyers are missing a couple of the intimidating players who might discourage some of that physicality.
"They're hard on the right guys," Carcillo said. "They haven't said boo to some of the other guys who they know will fight back. That's the way they play. That's the way they've always played. So we'll see what happens in [Game] 5."
Carcillo, for the record, was called for two minor penalties, an interference call in the first period and a roughing penalty that was offset by the same call on Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller. That latter was an odd one - Sabres defenseman Mike Weber was all over Carcillo and escaped notice - but Carcillo was hardly called for a penalty every time he was on the ice.
He had a point, though, about the Sabres' approach. There is little doubt that former Sabres star Danny Briere, the Flyers' smallest player, is a special target for extra punishment. After the game, Briere walked through the locker room with a cut on his left cheek and a nasty red welt across his neck. He was at the bottom of that postgame pileup of angry players.
For all of that, the game really came down to a few key moments involving skill, not thuggery. The most compelling was Briere's tete-a-tete with Miller, who has now pitched two shutouts in this series. The former teammates and old friends have taken a few verbal jabs at each other through the media. Miller noted that he could stop Briere over and over, but if he gets beat once, "it's a headline."
Well, the save Miller made on Briere in the third period may wind up being the signature moment in this series. Briere, somehow alone in front of the net, got the puck, and turned with a chance to fire it past Miller. Miller held his ground and lowered his glove toward Briere's stick just as he took his shot.
"Danny's a competitor," Miller said. "I'm going to respect that. I'm not going to brag. It's fun to play against the best in the world. They have some of them over there. It's fun to beat them. I'm going to see a lot of Danny and I'm going to see a lot of the Flyers."
They will see each other at least twice more. Given Miller's ability to steal a game - he's done it twice - this thing could easily go seven. For now, it is a best-of-three series with two games in Philadelphia.
Once upon a time, a longer series would favor the Flyers. They were almost always the more physical team, the one that wore its opponents down. The skate is on the other foot this time, and it's probably a good sign that they don't seem to like that.