The goals came in bunches for the Blackhawks and Flyers on Saturday in the opening game of the Stanley Cup finals, the result of odd bounces, poor defensive reads and goaltending so stunningly bad that Hall of Famer Tony Esposito, watching from a seat of honor at the United Center, was the best goalie in the building.
The Blackhawks prevailed, 6-5, in their first finals appearance since 1992, showing the resilience the Flyers had seemed to trademark during their unlikely playoff run this spring. Each time the Flyers went ahead the Blackhawks would respond, erasing deficits of 1-0, 3-2, and 4-3 while sending a roaring sellout crowd of 22,312 on an exhausting emotional journey.
Eleven goals — and none by the first line of either team. The much-anticipated matchup between beefy Chicago forward Dustin Byfuglien and behemoth Philadelphia defenseman Chris Pronger proved a minor subplot, as Byfuglien and linemates Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews were shut out. So was the Flyers' top line of Mike Richards, Simon Gagne and Jeff Carter.
But amid the joy and sweaty relief that reigned in the Blackhawks' locker room was a sense that they can't allow this to happen again, can't let the Flyers outmuscle them or outwork them again in Game 2, to be played here Monday.
The moment of truth for Chicago came after two periods, with the score 5-5.
"We just came in here and settled down and talked about it as a team that we've got to get back to playing our game and not playing pond hockey, and that's what it was in the first two periods," Kris Versteeg said.
"Both teams had been waiting so long and there were maybe some uncharacteristic plays on both sides. We've got to be better in our next game than we were tonight."
They were better in the third period than in the first two — good enough, anyway, to score the lone goal of the final 20 minutes. Tomas Kopecky, in the lineup only because winger Andrew Ladd has an upper-body injury, managed to get behind backup goalie Brian Boucher, who had replaced starter Michael Leighton at 15:18 of the second period and the Blackhawks holding a 5-4 lead, and slip the puck past the helpless goalie.
Kopecky had a goal and an assist, Troy Brouwer had two goals and an assist and Dave Bolland scored his fourth short-handed goal of the playoffs for the Blackhawks. Daniel Briere led the Flyers with a goal and three assists, Scott Hartnell had a goal and two assists and Ville Leino and Arron Asham each had a goal and an assist.
Not a first-liner among them.
"It was a crazy game, no doubt about it," Boucher said.
"When you lose the first game of the Stanley Cup final, it's hard to look for the positives right now," Flyers Coach Peter Laviolette said.
The crowd's roar diminished to a murmur by the end of the first, quashed by the Flyers' success around the net and 3-2 lead.
The second period was no great advertisement for defensive play — or the sharpness of Niemi and Leighton. Even at 5-5 through two periods, after Asham's wobbly one-timer from the left circle beat Niemi, the teams tried to regroup.
Only the Blackhawks succeeded.
"A lot of different guys contributed," Chicago's Patrick Sharp said. "I don't think it was the style of play both teams wanted out there, but both teams are comfortable playing it and have depth on their side."
That's one way to look at it, that the second- and third-liners saved both teams Saturday. But when even the winning team says it must be better next time, — and no one can find reason to disagree — that means tight-checking hockey could be a thing of the past.