Flyers come up big against one of the best

Blackhawks' goalie Antti Raanta shoots a pass by Flyers' Andrew MacDonald during the second period at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Tuesday, March 18, 2014. ( Steven M. Falk / Staff Photographer )
Blackhawks' goalie Antti Raanta shoots a pass by Flyers' Andrew MacDonald during the second period at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Tuesday, March 18, 2014. ( Steven M. Falk / Staff Photographer ) (Steven M. Falk)
Posted: March 20, 2014

If you want to know how much you've grown, it's always good to stand next to one of the tall kids, and in the NHL these days they don't stand any taller than the Chicago Blackhawks.

They are the team that has won two of the last four Stanley Cups, including the one four years ago against the Flyers on that odd-angled overtime shot by Patrick Kane at the Wells Fargo Center. They are the team that is about to put up a 100-point season for the fourth time in six years. The only reason they didn't last year was because it was a strike-shortened season, so they had to settle for 77 points, the most in the NHL.

They are fast, they are deep, and they will be among the favorites again when the NHL's 16-team tournament begins next month.

And the Flyers - just as they had been over the weekend against the Pittsburgh Penguins - were better than the Blackhawks Tuesday night, even before the game went to overtime and Claude Giroux skated the length of the ice and snapped off a wicked shot that beat goaltender Antii Raanta with just 4.2 seconds remaining.

Five seconds earlier, Craig Berube had burned his timeout to make sure the Flyers were set up properly for a faceoff in their own zone. The coach had not diagrammed Giroux's magical moment. That was an impromptu performance that brought this high-intensity hockey game to a close.

"I was honestly ready to pull out my lineup card for the shootout," Berube said. "It was a great shot. He's a determined guy and obviously he felt he had enough time to get down there and take a shot. And it was a great shot."

The last time the Flyers faced the Blackhawks, they were skated right out of the United Center, losing, 7-2, after being outscored by 6-1 in the final two periods. It was an eyesore of a performance that came at the end of a 2-4 road trip, and if you didn't think they were playoff-worthy at that point in the season, nobody would have disagreed.

But that was before Christmas, and in the slightly more than three months since, the Flyers have not only proved they are playoff contenders, they've also made us wonder if they are capable of making a run at the silver chalice they have not won in nearly 40 years.

Berube, who has led the Flyers' resurrection from a horrendous start in his first season as coach, wasn't all that interested in the measuring-stick angle. Even though the Flyers are playoff contenders, they are still not a lock to be one of the eight Eastern Conference representatives.

But there wasn't much need for motivational speaking on this night. That Stanley Cup Finals history from four years ago has not faded much, and each team played with a feistiness often reserved for divisional rivals and a long playoff series. Fists were thrown, sticks were raised, and the skates weren't the only thing with an edge.

"There are a lot of past battles between us and Chicago, so it isn't hard to get up for this game," winger Scott Hartnell said. "We kind of let it get away from us early with them getting an early 2-0 lead, but we fought back and fought hard, and it took over a little more than 64 minutes for us to get a win, but it was a big win for us."

Less than four minutes into the game, the Flyers were down, 2-0, and giving pucks away at an alarming rate. Did we mention there was some bad goaltending, too?

Andrew Shaw, alone in front of goaltender Ray Emery, pushed a pass from former Flyer Michal Handzus into the back of the net for the game's first goal at 2 minutes, 29 seconds of the first period. Eighty-two seconds later, Marian Hossa found Duncan Keith alone at the blue line and the Blackhawks defenseman fired a shot that went between Emery's pads and into the net.

It was a bad goal, but Emery deserved some slack. He had not played since Feb. 27 when he injured his groin after replacing starter Steve Mason in the middle of that game.

Like the Flyers this season, he got better. In fact, he was one of the best players on the ice by the end of the game.

Elasticity has been one of the Flyers' themes this season, and it was Hartnell and Giroux who got them even before the end of the first period. Less than two minutes after Keith's goal, the Flyers winger tried to send a puck in front of the net and instead sent it off the leg of Chicago's Marcus Kruger and into the net.

With 3:33 left in the period, Giroux won a battle behind Raanta, and the Flyers' captain found Hartnell in front of the net. Despite the presence of Shaw, Hartnell got off a strong shot and beat Raanta for his second goal of the period.

The score was tied at 2 and it appeared as if it was going to stay that way until the teams settled this in a shootout. But Claude Giroux had a different, more magical ending in mind as the Flyers continued to convert the doubters and added two more points to their playoff pursuit.


bbrookover@phillynews.com

@brookob

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