View From Afar: Flyers snatch defeat from victory's jaws

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MONTREAL -- It took about 20 minutes for the Montreal Canadiens to score two goals within 1 minute, 17 seconds Thursday night, and that was the easiest thing to understand about Game 1 of this series.

For the Flyers, it was their third game in three cities (and two nations) in the past four nights. Maybe that's why it seemed as if they were in the Twilight Zone more than the neutral zone for most of this overtime loss.

Broken sticks and high sticks. Pucks bouncing in off legs and defensemen's sticks. It was a game in which physics was defied and karma may have had the last laugh.

This was much like Game 1 of the Flyers' first-round series against the Washington Capitals. They built and then blew a two-goal lead. They had every chance to steal a game on the road and then, with breathtaking suddenness, the game was over and they had lost.

The Flyers gathered themselves and beat the Capitals. It will be much tougher to repeat that feat against this better, deeper and more experienced Montreal squad. Not impossible, but tougher.

This hurts, because the Flyers had a 3-2 lead with a little more than a minute to play. They were that close, but mistakes by their two mainstays cost them the game.

First, center Mike Richards upended Montreal's biggest star, Alex Kovalev, in open ice. The call was kneeing, but it could just as easily have been tripping. Richards clearly took the leg out from under Kovalev, who embellished his plummet to the ice.

But that's karma. Flyers fans looking for evidence of NHL bias against Philadelphia -- or for the Canadian team -- are advised to remember that overtime power play Tuesday in Washington.

The penalty came with 1:09 remaining in the third period. Montreal coach Guy Carbonneau pulled his goaltender, so the Canadiens were skating six-on-four. The strategy almost backfired, because the zone was too crowded. When the Flyers tied up the puck along the boards, it brought up a faceoff to goaltender Marty Biron's left.

There were 31.3 seconds on the clock.

Flyers coach John Stevens sent Jim Dowd out to replace R.J. Umberger, but not to take the faceoff. That duty fell to Jeff Carter, the Flyers' other young star. He lined up across the dot from Montreal's Saku Koivu.

Three seconds later, the score was tied.

Carter's stick broke. He leaned in to fight for the puck, and his stick blade snapped off. Carter fell clumsily onto his back, legs whipping, as the puck slid back. Kovalev blasted a shot through the confusion, a shot Biron never saw, and the teams went to overtime.

That improbable two-goal lead was long gone.

There was a 15-minute break to prepare the ice for 48 seconds of overtime. Tom Kostopoulos, left inexplicably alone in front of Biron for far too long, tucked home the winner.

Those breakdowns -- the penalty, the snapped stick, the defensive lapse in overtime -- cost the Flyers a chance to steal home-ice advantage from the favored Canadiens.

Kovalev's controversial first goal didn't help the Flyers, obviously, but it wasn't to blame.

For one thing, the goal was made possible because the Flyers were careless with the puck at the offensive end -- on a power play, no less. The Canadiens broke down the ice, and Tomas Plekanec fired a shot from just inside the Flyers' blue line. The rebound popped into the air, and Kovalev slapped it into the net like a tennis player slamming an overhead smash.

The trouble is, it's illegal to advance the puck with a high stick in the NHL. The play was reviewed at league headquarters in Toronto for several long minutes. The ruling: The goal counted.

Here's the key line in the applicable rule:

"The determining factor is where the puck makes contact with the stick. If the puck makes contact with the stick below the level of the crossbar and enters the goal, the goal shall be allowed."

A careful look at several replay angles showed Kovalev bringing his stick down, hitting the puck, then striking the top of the crossbar with the blade of his stick. The laws of physics dictate that he must have hit the puck above the level of the crossbar, which means no goal.

Again: The Flyers were careless with the puck. Biron didn't control the rebound. The puck may well have fallen into the net if Kovalev hadn't swiped at it. That play didn't cost the Flyers the game. Their mistakes did.

But some of that was inevitable, given the unforgiving schedule. The Flyers had a day to regroup before Game 2 tonight. If they respond as they did against the Capitals, they will be in this series.

For 59 minutes, they had control of this game. In a blurred rush, it was gone.


Phil Sheridan writes for The Philadelphia Inquirer.


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