CHICAGO – It’s clear by now who the real bullies are.
The speedy, skilful Blackhawks can still make the game look easy—witness the second-period power-play goal on which four Chicago players strung together passes in rapid-fire succession before Dustin Byfuglien converted a gimme in front of the Philadelphia net. But that doesn’t mean they don’t play rough, too.
Using the same mix-and-match strategy that proved so effective in the third period of Game 4, Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville’s new-look lines wreaked havoc on the Flyers from the start of Game 5, blending punishing hits and a potent offence in a 7-4 win Sunday night that looked even more decisive than the final score.
The stat sheet gave Philadelphia a wide margin in hits delivered, 45-35. If so, credit the Blackhawks with getting in twice as many quality shots.
“The way it worked out, we had some big boys on each line,” Chicago centre John Madden said after his team took a 3-2 lead with the Stanley Cup finals headed back to Philly on Wednesday. “And it’s funny how a little more grunt work freed up so much skating room. …
“But all that physical play won’t mean much if we don’t go into Philly with the same intensity. They’re going to treat Game 6 like it was Game 7,” he added. “We better be able to match that.”
The book on Chicago hasn’t changed since the start of the playoffs. Western Conference foes Nashville, Vancouver and San Jose all tried to nullify the Blackhawks’ superior talent with heavy forechecking and a healthy dose of hits. But only the Flyers, heirs to the “Broad Street Bullies” legacy of the Philadelphia clubs of three decades ago, was physical to parlay that disruptive style into back-to-back playoff wins, something that Quenneville didn’t counter until it was too late to salvage either road game.
Yet just like the final 20 minutes Friday night, when they nearly closed a 4-1 deficit, the Hawks began this one in reconfigured lines, each with at least one winger whose assignment was to get in some licks. They helped pin the Flyers deep in their own end, then caught them holding the puck long enough to deal out some punishing hits.
With Philadelphia back on its heels from the outset, Chicago scored three times in the final 7:43 of the opening period and never looked back.
“We survived probably the first six or seven minutes and they didn’t score,” Flyers coach Peter Laviolette said. “I thought that was the worst of it.”
Not even close.
Quenneville’s riskiest manoeuvre might have been breaking up his top line of Byfuglien, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Combined, they had only five points coming into the night. But they collected three goals and seven points with their new linemates and wrecked Laviolette’s most reliable defensive pairing, Chris Pronger and Matt Carle. The two defencemen were plus-9 in the four previous games, but minus-8 for this one.
Pronger has embraced the villain’s role from the outset of the series, angering the Blackhawks by stealing the puck at the end of Chicago’s two previous home wins and unceremoniously dumping both in the garbage. But Chicago put a bull’s-eye on his back for this one, rarely passing up an opportunity to run into Pronger.
Small wonder he wound up on the ice for six Chicago goals; it could have been seven, except Pronger was already in the penalty box for hooking Kane when Byfuglien put the finishing touch on as clinical a power-play tally as you’re likely to see.
“I’m not concerned by how many guys touched it,” Madden said about the goal, “only that it ends up in the net.”
The play that led to Pronger’s penalty demonstrated just how dominant the Blackhawks were. The 6-foot-6, 220 defencemen had effectively handcuffed Chicago’s top line by bouncing the 6-4, 257-pound Byfuglien every time he set up in front of the net, and routinely pounding Kane and Toews when they ventured anywhere close.
But on the shift just ahead of the hooking call, Kane grabbed the puck along the left board and started toward the big defenceman and the Flyers net. Then suddenly, Kane wheeled back toward the blue line and zoomed across the middle with Pronger in pursuit a stride behind.
Kane stayed out of reach all the way to the right side of the ice and got off a sharp backhand that Flyers backup goalkeeper Brian Boucher stopped. But the next time the speedy winger threatened to make Pronger look bad, the defenceman lazily relied on his stick instead of his skates and got whistled for the penalty.
The two saw a lot of each at the Vancouver Olympics—Kane played for Team USA; Pronger for Canada—so there’s little love lost.
“Obviously, he was on the ice for a lot of goals,” Kane said. “You have to be aware he’s probably going to bounce back with a better effort. But if we play like we did against him tonight, it’s going to make it tough on him … (We’ll) try to make him draw penalties and hopefully score when he’s in the penalty box.”
The Flyers have defied the odds the entire post-season. They came in as the seventh seed in the East and erased a 3-0 deficit in their series against Boston.
“One thing I’ve learned along the way about the playoffs is,” Laviolette said, “one game is only one game. There’s usually not a carry-over effect from game to game. You know, this is just one page of the story.
“Tonight,” he said, “it was their page.”
But unless Philadelphia shows more toughness at the start of Game 6 than they did in this one, you can close the book on their chance of holding the cup.