Blackhawks struggle to regain edge
CHICAGO — When they won the first two games of the Stanley Cup finals, the Chicago Blackhawks were soaring. A trip to Philadelphia brought them back to reality in a hurry.
After two wins by the gritty Flyers on their home ice tied the series, the championship round is now a best-of-three.
Before tonight’s Game 5 back at the United Center, the Blackhawks know they have to adjust — to the Flyers’ speed, to Philly’s rugged defense led by veteran Chris Pronger, to their own inability to get scoring from their top players — or risk losing what they’ve come this far to achieve.
Coach Joel Quenneville is expected to mix some lines, and Chicago’s defense hopes to give goalie Antti Niemi more support against a balanced Flyers’ attack.
To reestablish themselves, the Blackhawks know they can’t repeat their mistakes from Games 3 and 4. Defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson’s poor puck handling near the net led to a pair of first-period goals by the Flyers en route to a 5-3 victory in Game 4 Friday night. And Chicago was too slow with a line change in Game 3, helping set up Philly’s winning goal in overtime that produced a 4-3 victory.
Niemi, whose stellar play in the final period of Game 2 preserved a Chicago victory, gave up eight goals in the two games at the Wachovia Center.
“He’s played well for us all season . . . We’re not worried at all,’’ Chicago’s Brent Sopel said yesterday. “We left him high and dry as defensemen.’’
Philadelphia’s Michael Leighton, meanwhile, ran his record to 8-2 with the victory Friday night. The former Blackhawk has a .924 save percentage and a 2.14 goals-against average. And his defense gave him great support in Game 4 with 28 blocked shots.
One of the Flyers’ big advantages in the series has been on special teams. Chicago’s power play is just 1 for 9 after converting a 5-on-3 Friday night, while Philadelphia is 5 for 16.
“We know we have to do a better job of staying out of the box,’’ Sopel said. “We got to start taking pucks and bodies to the net.’’
The Flyers certainly are confident based on how close they came to winning in the first two games in Chicago, losing by one goal each time. Now the Flyers must find a way to break through at the United Center.
“There’s a lot of pressure. I mean, when you lose a game or you lose a couple of games you go home and you are wondering if you’ll win the next game,’’ Flyers coach Peter Laviolette said. “Usually desperation kicks in at that point. So I would expect that Chicago is going to come with a pretty good game [tonight].’’