Top lines not on top of score sheets in Stanley Cup finals

Posted: June 04, 2010

YOU CAN sense it coming.

Somebody will bust out real soon - maybe as soon as tonight, when the Flyers and Chicago Blackhawks resume play in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup finals.

The players involved are too talented to remain scoring afterthoughts in the finals: Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and Simon Gagne for the Flyers; Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Dustin Byfuglien for the Blackhawks.

One of these first-line units will rediscover its stride. The one that does it first could very well determine which team will raise the Stanley Cup.

"Are you asking me to choose?" Flyers coach Peter Laviolette said. "If you're asking me to choose, it's going to be a clear choice.

"They are both talented lines and both are getting some dangerous looks. One of their guys [Kane] got sprung [in Game 3], and you saw what happened."

When Kane scored in the third period Wednesday night, it was only the second goal produced by either first line in this series. Combined, Kane, Byfuglien and Toews have four points. Coming into the finals, that trio had combined for 22 goals and 34 assists.

The lack of scoring from the Flyers' triumvirate has been equally pronounced. Through the first three games of the finals, Richards, Gagne and Carter totaled three points - all on Gagne's goal in Game 2 - and are a combined minus–14.

"It would be nice to contribute offensively," Richards conceded. "We're just having some tough luck around the net. We're missing some opportunities and [Blackhawks goalie Antti Niemi] is making some saves.

"I don't want to put too much pressure by saying, if we don't score, we're going to lose, because I think we have so much depth. On any given night, anyone can score and have success.

"So I won't go that far, but it would definitely be nice to contribute and get some goals."

Laviolette said it's not so much that the first lines are playing poorly as it is that the defenses against them are outstanding.

There is a reason why Laviolette and Chicago coach Joel Quenneville are matching up certain defenders against certain players.

"As fast and as furious as it's going, the reason why the shots aren't 50-50 after three periods is because the defenses are fast, too," Laviolette said. "It's hard for those players to find the open space they need in order to create offense because of the way the defenses are playing.

"There's not a lot of wiggle room out there for great scoring chances. So when you've got them, you've got to take them quick, because things close up in a hurry."

As even as this series has been played, everyone is waiting to see which set of scorers comes to life first.

The way things are going, Richards is right when he says they Flyers won't necessarily lose if he and his linemates continue to struggle.

But if Kane, Byfuglien and Toews get going, and Carter, Richards and Gagne don't provide a counterattack, things will get extremely complicated for the Flyers.

That's why even though they went without a point in Game 3, Laviolette liked the fact that the first line created 12 chances for Carter at the net and five for Gagne.

To be fair, there has to be a qualifier for the Richards-Carter-Gagne line. Richards is the only one who has been healthy enough to play in all of the playoff games.

If this were the regular season, Carter probably wouldn't be playing, because of the broken foot he suffered.

It takes a little time to regain chemistry.

"Obviously, Jeff came back early," Richards said. "He's got his legs back, but I think when you are not on the ice for a long period of time, it takes the hands a little time to get back.

"I think Jeff is starting to get more shots. He's doing a much better job of finding seams and getting around people, doing the little things.

"We're playing well. We're just, unfortunately, not getting the results in the net that we want. But if we keep going, I think they are going come."

They have to start coming, because it seems as if it's just a matter of time before Toews, Kane and Byfuglien resume their success.

And when they do, if Richards, Carter and Gagne don't step up to match them, these Stanley Cup finals will get really difficult for the Flyers.

The reverse will apply to Chicago. *

Send e-mail to

smallwj@phillynews.com.

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http://go.philly.com/smallwood.

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