CHICAGO – The Chicago Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers waged a Stanley Cup opener that was at times wild and sloppy, a high-scoring, up-and-down game with five lead changes and a winning goal from an unlikely hero.
Tomas Kopecky, scratched in the previous five games and playing because of an injury to Andrew Ladd, took a great pass from Kris Versteeg in the third period and scored from a tough angle past backup goalie Brian Boucher to send Chicago to a 6-5 victory Saturday night.
“I kind of knew he was going to pass it once he got around. I kind of got it on a long reach and I saw him come out and before the game we were talking about both goalies,” Kopecky said.
The Blackhawks took advantage of starter Michael Leighton and Boucher to grab the early lead in the series.
“They challenge the puck a little bit, so I was just kind of a little patient and I just slid it in,” Kopecky said of his goal.
The Blackhawks took the first step toward ending their 49-year championship drought and found out what they knew going in—it’s going to be a difficult series against a gritty Philadelphia team on a remarkable run.
“They came out strong, they were playing really physical,” Chicago forward Kris Versteeg said. “We had to match them, and once we did that, I think we did well.”
On this night, pucks seemed to find the net as often as they did sticks as both teams had trouble with control.
“The ice is below average,” Philadelphia’s Scott Hartnell said.
“It’s really chippy. A lot of snow accumulates really fast, so after the first couple of minutes you don’t see those nice crisp passes and things like that. It’s hot outside and humid and stuff like that so hopefully they’ll be able to do a better job for Game 2, the ice guys.”
Game 2 is Monday night at the United Center.
“You lose the first game of the Stanley Cup finals and it’s hard to sit here and thumb through the positives right now,” Flyers coach Peter Laviolette said. “We’ll take a look at it tonight and tomorrow. We’ll be ready to go.”
Kopecky scored from the left side and beat Boucher at 8:25 of the third. Boucher entered the game after Leighton was pulled in the second period after giving up five goals on 20 shots.
“We were a little bit too loose in front of our net, and we left too many point-blank opportunities, at times we had men there,” Laviolette said.
“We’ve got to be a little bit better defensively than we were.”
The Flyers failed to hold three one-goal leads.
“A lot of action. Shootout at the OK Corral,” Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. “Things settled down as the game progressed. Certainly, I don’t think anybody envisioned 5-5 heading into the third period.”
Danny Briere had a goal and three assists and Hartnell had a goal and two assists for the Flyers.
Chicago’s Troy Brouwer scored two goals, the second putting the Blackhawks ahead 5-4 in the second period and prompting the Flyers to replace Leighton.
Brouwer, assisted on both scores by Marian Hossa, said that nerves may have played a role in some of Chicago’s sloppy play, especially early. The Blackhawks hadn’t played in five days and the Flyers had a four-day layoff since wrapping up the conference titles.
“For me, I just wanted to be ready. Our line’s been playing well. … We want to be a dangerous line every time we’re on the ice,” Brouwer said.
“I wanted to have a good game and really get some confidence for the series.”
Ville Leino, Blair Betts and Arron Asham also scored the Flyers.
Dave Bolland had a short-handed, breakaway goal for the Blackhawks, and Patrick Sharp and Versteeg also scored for Chicago.
The Blackhawks are in their first final series since 1992 and are aiming for the franchise’s first championship since 1961. The Flyers, who last made the finals in 1997, are shooting for their first title since the Broad Street Bullies won the second of two straightchampionships in 1975.
The Flyers weren’t too bullish Saturday night. They played the entire game without a penalty.
Brouwer’s second goal, on a pass from Hossa who reversed himself behind the net, came from the left circle with 4:42 left in the second, sending ex-Blackhawks goalie Leighton to the bench.
Leighton had been brilliant since taking over in the second round. He entered the game with a 6-1 record, including three shutouts, after replacing an injured Boucher in the Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Boston Bruins. Leighton entered with a 1.45 goals-against average and save percentage of .948.
Chicago’s Antti Niemi made 27 saves for the win.
The Flyers scored a late goal in each of the first two periods. Asham converted from the left circle after a cross-ice pass from Briere with 1:11 remaining in the second, tying it at 5-5.
Fourth-liner Betts picked up a loose puck after it came off the boards when the Blackhawks couldn’t control it, skated into the left circle and fired it past Niemi for his first playoff goal, putting the Flyers back in front 4-3 in the second.
But a little more than two minutes later, Versteeg got his own rebound and tied it after Kopecky had skated behind the net.
The Flyers capitalized in the closing seconds of the first when Briere fired a shot from the slot, hustled toward the net and scored on the rebound for his 10th goal of the playoffs, stunning the Blackhawks with just 27 seconds left in the period for a 3-2 lead.
But former Flyers forward Sharp quickly got the Blackhawks even.
On a break, with Hossa on the other side of the ice, Sharp held onto the puck and fired from the right circle, beating Leighton just 71 seconds into the second period and tying the game.
The Flyers, behind four shots from Briere, had a 17-9 advantage in the opening period, showing that they have the offensive quickness to match the Blackhawks.
Bolland took the puck away from defenceman Braydon Coburn at centre ice, started his breakaway, and his shot struck Leighton before finding its way into the net. Bolland’s second short-handed goal of the playoffs gave the Blackhawks a 2-1 lead.
But after Chicago’s third penalty of the opening period, the Flyers converted on the power play. Flyers defenceman Chris Pronger drove a shot from the high slot, and Hartnell scored on the rebound to make it 2-2.
On Philadelphia’s first goal, Leino directed the puck toward the crease from the left circle. Niemi blocked it and then it apparently deflected off Chicago’s Niklas Hjalmarsson and went in just 6:38 into the game to give the Flyers the early lead.
The raucous crowd of 22,312 at the United Center wasn’t quieted for long.
Just 68 seconds later, Hossa made a nice backhanded pass from the right circle to Brouwer in the circle. From high in the slot, he rifled it past Leighton to tie the game.