The Stanley Cup Finals have just begun.
Before Game Four, we identified the third period as a key for the Blackhawks. Unfortunately, the first period buried the Hawks too deep on Friday night. We'll talk about the third period later, but the first period was absolutely awful.
Niklas Hjalmarsson had two terrible plays that resulted in first period goals for the Flyers who sprinted to a 3-1 lead. Antti Niemi only faced eight shots in the first period, but none of the three goals were soft; Hjalmarsson should have received two assists.
The Hawks settled down in the second period and the two teams skated a rare scoreless 20 minutes. Niemi appeared to settle down in the net, keeping all 10 shots out of the net that he faced in the second. The Blackhawks were able to more consistently control the flow of the action and got good looks (13 shots), but couldn't cash in.
Unfortunately for the Hawks, Ville Leino continued to torment them with a goal just under seven minutes into the third period that extended the Flyers' lead to 4-1. At this point, the Blackhawks were chasing three goals with wholesale changes to their forward lines and even the on-air team was talking about the series being tied coming back to Chicago. But there were 13 minutes left in the game...
Remember back to the second game of the series. The Flyers appeared to grab the momentum of the series despite losing the game, clearly out-skating the Blackhawks in the third period. If not for an exceptional third period from Niemi, the Hawks could have dropped that game. Down 4-1 in the middle of the third period, the momentum couldn't have favored the Flyers more.
But then the Blackhawks (gasp!) got a power play opportunity. Less than a minute into that advantage, Braydon Coburn was called for holding and the Hawks were now set with a two-man advantage. Dave Bolland found the back of the net just 12 seconds into the two-man advantage to cut the lead to 4-2. The Hawks appeared to have some life.
The pressure kept coming from the new-look Hawks lines. Coach Joel Quenneville shifted to a speed line of Kris Versteeg-Bolland-Patrick Kane that scored on the power play. Kane was able to find more space on the ice with Versteeg and Bolland and was more effective with the puck both on the power play and at even strength.
Another line that was effective in the third period was moving Andrew Ladd up to the top line with Jonathan Toews and Dustin Byfuglien. Ladd hadn't played yet in the Finals, but skated 22 good shifts on Friday night and brought a physical presence to the ice despite being credited with only one hit. He was credited with an assist Brian Campbell's goal at 15:50 that cut the lead to 4-3.
The Hawks continued to push the tempo and throw pucks at the net, but the Flyers' defense was too strong in front of Michael Leighton. On the night, the Flyers blocked 28 shots on top of the 34 that reached Leighton.
There were a few areas on the ice where the Blackhawks were able to break out. Toews took an astounding 33 of the Blackhawks' 89 faceoffs in the game, winning 24 of them (73 percent). Duncan Keith added three assists in the game as well, and Campbell played by far his best game since returning from injury in the Nashville series. The Hawks finally got on the board, scoring on one of their three power plays, while their penalty kill was much better, killing five of six Flyers' advantages.
However, Jeff Carter added an empty net goal after a bouncing puck jumped Keith's stick in the final minute to put the cap on a 5-3 Flyers' victory. The 29 goals that have been scored in the first four games is the most to begin a Stanley Cup Finals since 1981.
Byfuglien had five of his six hits in the third period on Friday night, but he has been an absolute ghost in the Finals. After being a darkhorse candidate for the Conn Smythe coming into the series, Byfuglien has been so ineffective that Quenneville might have to consider looking to his bench for effective play in Game Five.
Before Game Three, I asked if Quenneville should change the Hawks' lines. It appears now that the Hawks should, and will.
The rush from the Blackhawks in the third period was very similar the push from the Flyers in Game Two, and the result of the game left the better team of the third period on the losing side of the ledger again. The series comes back to Chicago on Sunday tied, with just three games left to decide the Stanley Cup champions.