Tomas Kopecky lifts Chicago Blackhawks in Game 1 of Stanley Cup finals

By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 30, 2010

CHICAGO -- Tomas Kopecky hadn't suited up since the semifinals, banished to the press box in street clothes as an extra forward.

In Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals, though, he proved to be the one forward Chicago couldn't do without Saturday at United Center. Kopecky, a checking-line winger back in the lineup because of an injury, scored the only goal of the third period to give the Blackhawks a wild 6-5 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers.

"Remarkable comeback," Blackhawks Coach Joel Quenneville said of Kopecky's timely return. "A nice return to the lineup."

That a grinder produced the winner was fitting on a night when many of the stars struggled. Chicago's Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Dustin Byfuglien combined for five shots on goal and a plus-minus rating of minus-nine, while Philadelphia's Simon Gagné, Jeff Carter and Mike Richards were a combined minus-seven.

Kopecky, however, made the most of his 12 minutes 36 seconds of ice time. After sitting out five consecutive games as a healthy scratch, the 28-year-old Slovak set up a second-period goal then had the game on his line about eight minutes into the third period when he snagged a pass from Kris Versteeg in the slot. Kopecky patiently waited out Flyers goalie Brian Boucher, slipping the puck past him from a tight angle.

"Great play, good patience on the winning goal," Quenneville said.

The 11 goals were the most in a Cup final contest in 18 games. The victory, meantime, was Chicago's first in the championship round since 1973.

While Kopecky and the Blackhawks celebrated a momentum-building triumph before 22,312 delirious fans, the Flyers were left to contemplate what went wrong and, perhaps, whether to start a different goaltender in Game 2. Journeyman Michael Leighton, one round after shutting out Montreal three times, was replaced in the second period by Boucher after yielding five goals on 20 shots. Boucher looked considerably sharper in stopping 11 of the 12 shots he faced.

"Everybody has got to be better," Flyers Coach Peter Laviolette said. "Tonight we lost as a team."

At the other end of the rink, Chicago goaltender Antti Niemi got better after shaking off some early nerves and finished with 27 saves. He stopped the six shots he faced in the third period.

"I think our [defensive coverage] wasn't as sharp as it needed to be," Quenneville said. "Created a lot of confusion. I thought he gave us a chance, particularly in the third."

The game began the way all of them do here -- with Blackhawks fans standing and cheering during the national anthem. What ensued was equally unique. The teams combined for five goals in the first period, the highest total in the opening 20 minutes of a Cup final contest.

The Flyers, who were not whistled for a penalty, surrendered a short-handed goal when the puck hopped over defenseman Braydon Coburn's stick, springing Dave Bolland on a breakaway that he converted with a shot between Leighton's pads. But they still managed to take a 3-2 lead into the first intermission thanks to a Ville Leino shot that deflected into the net off of Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson's face, opening a gash, and turnovers by Blackhawks Brian Campbell and Kane that led to the other Flyers goals.

The teams accounted for five more goals in a second period in which netminding appeared to be optional and defense was, at times, nonexistent.

After Troy Brouwer notched his second goal of the night to put the Blackhawks ahead 5-4, Laviolette pulled Leighton in favor of Boucher at 15:18. Boucher, interestingly, had lost his job to Leighton when he suffered sprains in both knees in the semifinals.

But Niemi and the Blackhawks couldn't hold onto that lead, either. Arron Asham finished off a nifty display of crossing passes to send the game into the third tied, 5-5.

Afterward, however, the Blackhawks didn't dwell much on the breakdowns.

"The first game is always huge because you want to get momentum," said Marian Hossa, who had two assists. "It's all about momentum in the final, and when grab the momentum, that's huge."

Finals notes: Kopecky was in the lineup for Andrew Ladd, who was sidelined with a suspected shoulder injury. . . . A bronze statue of Michael Jordan dunking a basketball in front of the United Center is wearing a Toews jersey, a helmet and skate blades. Toews won 15 of his 19 faceoffs as the Blackhawks dominated the dot (62 percent as a team). . . . Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger played 32:21 while Ryan Parent skated a total of 41 seconds. . . . The Blackhawks again checked into a Chicago hotel Saturday to promote team bonding and limit distractions. . . . Teams that win Game 1 have won the Cup in 54 of 70 seasons since the best-of-seven format was introduced in 1939.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company