Chicago punches way to 2-0 series lead
A championship series in spring around here used to mean one thing, and one thing only.
There's a reason, after all, the United Center is still called ``The House That Jordan Built.''
But this time around, it's the Chicago Blackhawks packing the place to the rafters. And even Michael Jordan's statue outside has undergone a makeover - donning a helmet, skates and red jersey fronting the familiar Indian head, the best logo in any sport.
And there's a growing feeling that he might have the Stanley Cup tucked under his free arm sometime soon.
Chicago had to sweat a shaky third period Monday just to post another one-goal decision over the Flyers. Yet they head back to Philadelphia with a 2-0 lead in the series, having won seven straight playoff games, seven straight on the road and their talented young offensive stars - Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane - have yet to contribute a point.
``We're going to have guys that aren't the usual goal-scorers,'' Toews said, ``but that's what's great about this team.''
It's far from the only thing, though.
The Blackhawks got what proved to be the game-winner from Ben Eager, whose principal role is enforcer - he scored only seven times in the regular season - and goalkeeper Antti Niemi made it stand up in a 2-1 win. Both played so well that their teammates had a tough time deciding which one got the belt - a black leather number with an oversized gold buckle reading, ``World Heavyweight Wrestling Champion'' - awarded after each game to the Hawks' best player.
``Benji got it,'' defenseman Brian Campbell confirmed afterward. ``He had the winner and some big hits. But frankly it wasn't an easy decision. The way he's come through the whole playoffs, Antti could get it every night.''
Eager played only 4:03 on this night, but got a few regular shifts with the fourth line because the Hawks needed a physical presence to offset Philadelphia's suddenly more aggressive game plan. Flyers coach Peter Laviolette signaled his intention not to repeat the wide-open play and shootout that produced a 6-5 Chicago win in Game 1 by replacing winger Simon Gagne with goon Daniel Carcillo on his top line.
Carcillo, whose nickname is ``Car Bomb,'' apparently had the desired effect, since the game was all of three seconds old when Hawks center Dave Bolland and his opposite number, Mike Richards, contested the opening faceoff and then immediately commenced pushing and shoving each other.
``I thought Danny did a good job,'' Laviolette said. ``He skated, he forechecked, he made some hits. I thought he brought some energy.''
By energy, the Flyers coach apparently meant Carcillo was successful getting under the Blackhawks' skin, because they took some bad penalties.
``We did,'' Chicago center John Madden said, ``but part of it, too, is the teams feeling each other out. I think everybody was jittery in Game 1, and now we both know where the pucks are going to be and how guys will play them. So it was easier to make some hits.
``And there's likely to be even more collisions,'' he added, ``in Game 3.''
That's a tactic all three of the Blackhawks' Western Conference playoff opponents - Nashville, Vancouver and San Jose - tried with diminishing returns. The only teams with enough offensive firepower to play Chicago even up are Pittsburgh and Washington, and neither made it through the grueling Eastern Conference half of the bracket that left Philadelphia standing.
Teams playing a more physical style can force Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville to rely less on his stars and look farther down the bench. But Chicago is so deep that even full-time bodyguards such as Eager and Adam Burish are skilled enough to put the puck in the net.
``That was fun tonight,'' Burish said, despite logging only three minutes. ``From early on, it was nasty. Guys were nasty, in everybody's face. ... We responded pretty darn well. Lot of big hits, a lot of nastiness, a lot of tripping.''
Expect even more of that stuff in Philadelphia. If nothing else, their fans will demand it.
``I've been there plenty of times and it doesn't matter who's beside you,'' Campbell said, ``even if it's your 5-year-old son. People there don't hesitate to tell you what they think of you.''
In truth, though, the Blackhawks most dangerous adversary might be overconfidence.
``I told my mom to be careful what you wear,'' Burish said. ``'Don't wear too much Blackhawks stuff or someone might smack you.''
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org.