PHILADELPHIA A funny thing happened on the way to the Stanley Cup finals last night a hockey game broke out. None of this trapping stuff, neutral zone blocks or left wing locks.
You would have thought the Ringling Bros. circus was in the First Union Center the way bodies were flying around. Players threw checks real body checks and for the most part officials let them get away with it, just like the old days. Players took wild, off-balance shots, and goalies were forced to make some acrobatic saves.
Goalie Martin Brodeur wasn’t quite acrobatic enough last night. His New Jersey Devils blew a two-goal lead and lost to the Philadelphia Flyers 4-3, possibly turning what appeared to be a romp to the finals into a real series.
The best-of-7 Eastern Conference finals are tied at a win apiece with Games 3 and 4 in East Rutherford, N.J., tomorrow and Saturday nights. Game 5 is Monday night in Philadelphia.
Rick Tocchet and Daymond Langkow scored the game-tying and game-winning goals as the Flyers rallied from a one-goal deficit entering the third period. But an earlier goal by Eric Desjardins made everything possible, proving another old theory correct don’t let your opponent score in the closing seconds of a period.
“It’s an old cliche in hockey you don’t give up a goal in the last minute,” Flyers interim coach Craig Ramsay said. “So we tried to capitalize on that. It gave us a good feeling in the dressing room. It was a great play across by Tocchet. Finally we found the guy sneaking in and made something happen. The guys were excited about that. It sort of pumped us up.”
The situation was this: New Jersey led 3-1 late in the second period and were toying with the Flyers. The play drifted into the left side of the Devils’ end. That left the right side wide open, and Desjardins barreled down, executing his part of the backdoor play. Tocchet spotted him and slipped a pass across the rink, and the defenseman one-timed it past Brodeur.
It did a lot more than narrow the Philadelphia deficit to one goal. It shifted the momentum from the Devils to the Flyers not only for the game but perhaps for the series. Instead of trailing 0-2 in a best-of-7, the Flyers go to New Jersey with everything even.
“Any time you give up a goal in the last minute of play, it’s a big difference going into the third [not having] a two-goal lead,” Devils coach Larry Robinson said. “It gave them a big lift, and we played Flyers hockey instead of playing Devils hockey. We paid the price for it.”
Tocchet gave the Flyers an early 1-0 lead with the first of his two goals. But super rookie Scott Gomez tied it, and the Devils pounded in a pair in the second period seemingly to put the game away. That’s when Tocchet and Desjardins teamed for the one that counted.
“If we go in [down] 3-1 after that period, it gets a little ugly,” said Tocchet, a former Capital. “You’re dejected because you had a bad period. You make it 3-2, and all of a sudden you think, ‘Hey, man, we got life.’ That was a key goal.”
“It was a character performance by a character player,” Ramsay said about Tocchet, who was obtained from Phoenix late in the season. “He stayed back from the net and got a shot on one goal; he obviously drove to the net, got a rebound and drove through people. I thought he played with courage at both ends of the rink. He was determined. Our whole team played like that, especially late. We played a little gritty. We played hard.”
There were 63 total shots in the game, three more than in the first game, which was considered abnormal for any game involving the Devils. New Jersey specializes in limiting shots and, therefore, chances.
There were some injuries, the extent of which could not be determined last night. One that should give the Flyers the most pause would be to Langkow, who was flattened by a thunderous but clean hit from Brian Rafalski shortly after scoring his third-period goal. Philadelphia already is short on centers and can’t afford to lose another.
And the Devils lost rookie center John Madden with what appeared to be a serious injury to his right leg, also in the third period.
Note Eric Lindros returned to the ice yesterday at the Flyers’ practice rink and skated by himself for about 20 minutes. If all goes well, a few minor leaguers will work with him toward the end of the week on passing and shooting drills with absolutely no contact with one of the spare goalies in net.
Lindros is recovering from the fourth and fifth concussions of his career but said last night he is feeling better and would have no problem returning to the Flyers even though another player, Desjardins, wears the captain’s “C.” The Flyers stripped Lindros of the captaincy when he attacked the team’s medical staff for what he termed inattention to his concussions, but by his own admission it appeared he misled the team trainer.
Lindros said last night he would wear a helmet with better padding and a mouth guard when and if he returns. His contract expires at the end of the season; with his medical history he will probably get no more than a qualifying offer from the Flyers, but that would bind him to the team.