When the occasion demanded their best, the Chicago Blackhawks gave their worst.
Knowing that a victory Friday would have sent them back to the United Center with a chance to parade the Stanley Cup out of the building Sunday night, they responded with a stumbling, fumbling, undisciplined effort in a 5-3 loss to the Flyers that exposed the bald spots they had been carefully combing over.
Their performance was redeemed slightly by a two-goal push in the third period that had a Wachovia Center-record crowd of 20,304 standing out of nervousness and fear.
But the Flyers, so accustomed to adversity, hung on to win and tie the Stanley Cup finals at two games each, an empty-net goal by Jeff Carter with 24.6 seconds left becoming the final stroke that turned this into a best-of-three series.
"They were long minutes," Flyers forward Simon Gagne said, "but we were confident."
Why wouldn't they be?
The Flyers, who made the playoffs in the weak Eastern Conference by winning a shootout on the final day of the season and rallied from a 3-0 deficit to get past Boston in the second round, showed again that although they didn't lead the NHL in wins, points or other significant categories they have the resolve and character that fuels champions.
The Flyers were supposed to have discipline problems, a gaping hole in goal and little chance to win the franchise's first title since the Broad Street Bully days of 1974 and 1975.
But it was the Blackhawks who took two needless offensive-zone penalties Friday, including one the Flyers capitalized on for a power-play goal. Blackhawks goaltender Antti Niemi gave up three goals on eight shots in the first period, though not all of the blame can be laid at his padded feet.
The Blackhawks' vaunted defense did him few favors. Niklas Hjalmarsson completed more passes to Flyers than to his own teammates, twice committing giveaways that led directly to Philadelphia goals. Brent Sopel was -2. Brian Campbell was invisible.
"We made some mistakes at the start and they capitalized," Sopel said. "When something like that happens, you need the other four guys to help out."
They got an anchor when they needed a life preserver. "I thought we were very generous in the first period on what we gave them as far as goals went," Coach Joel Quenneveille said.
The Blackhawks gave the Flyers much more than a couple of goals: They gave the Flyers new life.
Momentum rarely carries over in the finals. Each game tends to be stand-alone drama. But the Flyers, who lost each of the first two games at Chicago by one goal, won Game 3 in overtime and on Friday won a game that shouldn't have been so close, seem to have seized control of the series as the teams return to Chicago for Game 5 and plan for Game 6 on Wednesday in Philadelphia.
"It's zero-zero now," forward Ian Laperriere said in the happy din of the Flyers' locker room. "Whoever wins two games is now going to have that big Cup.
"We need to win one game in their building. It might as well be the next one."
The Blackhawks, who compiled the NHL's third-best record and second-most wins this season, who overwhelmed the spunky Nashville Predators in the first round, unmasked the Vancouver Canucks as overhyped poseurs in the second round and thrashed the top-seeded San Jose Sharks in the West finals have been flummoxed by a team that shouldn't be here.
A team that again stifled the Blackhawks' top line of Dustin Byfuglien, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane while getting the first goal of the game from its own No. 1 center, Mike Richards.
Philadelphia's support players again came through, though the way defenseman Matt Carle has been performing he can't be considered a secondary player anymore. He scored the unassisted goal that put the Flyers up, 2-1, at 14:48 of the first period. Claude Giroux, a revelation the last two games, scored a key goal late in the first period to restore a two-goal lead 51 seconds after the Blackhawks had pulled within one.
Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger once again was a magician, making Byfuglien disappear. Carle, Braydon Coburn and Kimmo Timmonen gave the Flyers the smart first pass and good reads that the Blackhawks' defense didn't.
Where do the Blackhawks go from here?
Home, where they channel energy from their own lively crowd toward working harder and smarter. "At the end of the game we had traffic at the net," Hossa said, "but at the beginning the goalie saw everything. We have to do a better job to get shots through traffic and at the goalie."
That would be a start. Unless they want this to end soon.