CHICAGO -- Off flew Jeff Carter's helmet, down with a thud came his body. The United Center crowd roared with glee, tickled red by the mid-ice pratfall.
This is how the Stanley Cup Finals were meant to be played, with gnashing of teeth and smacks to the head. Game 1 was more like a breezy ski run down a white mountain, straight ahead, without poles. Game 2 felt as if it took place inside an MMA cage.
That Carter happened to be crushed by his own Philadelphia teammate merely added spice to a night that ended in a delirious flurry, with Chicago hanging on desperately to a 2-1 win that gave the Blackhawks a 2-0 edge in the championship series. For all we know, goalie Antti Niemi was unconscious for the latter part of the evening, because that is as good an explanation as any to explain his otherworldly, turn-back-everything-but-the-clock performance as time wound down.
After a third period in which Niemi's saves went from brilliant to absurd, he might have been the only one in the joint not hyperventilating from the sheer madness. While players on both benches had summoned their inner nasty streaks -- Ben Eager, being the genial host, did have some nice parting words for Chris Pronger -- Niemi was Zen cool. He stopped 14 Flyer shots, not a ridiculous number, but oh my, were those some shots.
He rejected back bids that were point-blank in his grille, knocked away blasts fired from six, seven, eight feet away, robbed and stoned the Flyers into submission. But they kept coming in frantic waves, in wild surges, their defense bullying toward the crease, their forechecking spectacular. Niemi cracked only once.
There was a nifty snag of a tipped puck to protect Chicago's one-goal lead following Simon Gagne's bouncing tally with one second left on a Flyer power play, another save during a scrum in which Niemi lost his stick. Before this season Niemi had zero playoff experience, but when Monday night was over, when the gloss was still settling on his 32-save masterpiece, the Chicago crowd lustily serenaded him the way they used to salute another cool-as-ice customer with the initials M.J.
Niemi practically had to be dragged to the postgame interview room, where he sat with Marian Hossa, the bridesmaid (though perhaps not for long) who had finally rediscovered his scoring groove. Hossa happily talked about his "ugly garbage" goal, saying his scoring drought "bugged me definitely." Niemi blushed and nervously rubbed his playoff beard.
"I think our 'D' played maybe a little bit better in front of the net in blocking shots and letting me see the puck. But it's always a little bit about the luck, too, how you see the puck, and how it bounces," said Niemi, as modest and unassuming an athlete you'll ever find. He once drove a Zamboni machine to make extra cash, a humbling experience for any would-be star.
Duncan Keith, playing the role of Niemi's lineman, said in his understated country drawl: "I would rather be in our position trying to defend, if you go in the third period late like that and having the lead. I thought Antti made some nice plays, took up a lot of the net, we did a good job clearing some pucks out to not let them get any rebounds."
And so the circus moves to Philadelphia, where the series surely will maintain its cage-fight vibe. The Flyers aren't inclined to wilt -- like the Philly fans would ever let them -- and will no doubt lean heavily on their mastery of the comeback. You know, their season-wrecking shootout win over the hated Rangers, their Red Sox-like recovery against the Bruins. It's in their DNA now, this sense that nothing is over until the puck takes its last spin, and it bodes well for Philadelphia that goalie Michael Leighton rebounded nicely from his Game 1 exit.
"I'm not sure we should be frustrated. I don't think we got outplayed," Flyers coach Peter Laviolette said, sounding much like his players in their postgame spiel. "I thought their goaltender played extremely well in the third period. We had more than enough looks to tie up that game and opportunities to get out of it."
But the Blackhawks are a different kind of treat altogether than the Bruins or any other East Coast squad. It's not just Hossa finally exorcising past playoff demons from his head. It's their transition game, their depth, their ability to rise even while Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane struggle around the net.
The crowd was still locked in a dancing group hug from Hossa's second-period goal when Ben Eager snapped up a pass from Dustin Byfuglien and wristed the puck past Leighton. Eager is a fourth-line player and former Flyer, as lethal with the checks as he is with the verbal daggers. He was asked what he whispered to Chris Pronger, the Flyers' relentless, ice-burning defenseman, when the two met in a tussle at the buzzer.
"Just a little postgame chat, but it was nothing," Eager demurred, smirking like a toddler caught with a hand in the cookie jar.
Prodded, he grinned and admitted, "He's been picking the pucks up after the game, and I just told him he can keep it."
Count on the tough talk and rough hits to continue Wednesday in Game 3. And that's just in the Wachovia Center seats.
The Flyers pumped up the macho quotient when they inserted Daniel Carcillo into the lineup Monday night after he had been a healthy scratch the previous three games. He was there to agitate, instigate and otherwise drive the Blackhawks slightly insane. In the first period when he tried to wipe out Chicago's Tomas Kopecky, missed, and smashed violently with Carter, his own teammate, the game's tone might as well have been scratched into the boards.
Carcillo's a bit of a legend in Philly, carved from the same mold as Brian Dawkins. Carcillo's got that throwback long hair and funky 'stache, and there is a certain beauty in his energetic whirls around the ice, his bone-crushing hits. He draws more penalties than he takes, which is a talent all by itself. He was caught jawing several times with the Blackhawks' bench in Game 2, and ended up later with an unsportsmanlike penalty.
"He skated, he forechecked, he made some hits. I thought he brought some energy," Laviolette said of Carcillo. Expect Carcillo to be in the lineup again Wednesday night, where the fans will be dressed in their finest "We bleed orange" T-shirts.