CHICAGO – The Philadelphia Flyers were out-Flyered by an ex-Flyer in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals. Beaten by a former Broad Street Bully known more for his hard hits and punching prowess than his lamp-lighting ability, it would almost be embarrassing if it wasn’t so devastating.
Ben Eager(notes), a 230-pound fourth-line winger who led the Chicago Blackhawks with five fighting majors in the regular season, got a rare turn on the top unit with Jonathan Toews(notes) and Dustin Byfuglien(notes) on Monday night and made it count. Coach Joel Quenneville threw the big winger over the boards with the big-money boys on the first shift following Marian Hossa's(notes) game-opening goal late in the second period. Twenty-eight seconds later, Eager put the 'Hawks up 2-0 in a contest they would hold on to win 2-1.
The home crowd was still buzzing about Hossa's third goal of the playoffs when Eager scored his first, taking a pass from Byfuglien in the neutral zone, roaring down the right wing and, using defenseman Matt Carle(notes) as a screen, unleashing a blast that beat goalie Michael Leighton(notes) high to the glove side.
"It was awesome," said Adam Burish(notes), with whom Eager usually toils on the fourth unit. "It was a beauty. It was almost like a practice drill; he comes flying down that wing and snaps one and he's got a heavy shot when he lets it go."
Indeed. Eager, most folks forget, was a first-round draft pick in 2002, 23rd overall by the Phoenix Coyotes. That means he's got some skill to go with his bone-crunching bodychecks. He was traded to Philadelphia in 2004 and then to Chicago in 2007; a minor move at the time that looks like a pretty big deal now. Eager scored seven times in 60 games for the 'Hawks this season, and had 11 more in 75 games in '08-09.
Oh yeah, he had 281 penalty minutes over the past two seasons, too. As his surname suggests, he’s an energy player, usually in the form of an exclamation-point hit – like the ones he delivered on his first shift of the first period, knocking the stuffing out of not one, but two Flyers. And then he knocked the stuffing out of an entire Flyers team with an overpowering shot that turned a tight defensive battle into a two-goal cushion.
"Benny can score goals, there's no question about that," said veteran John Madden(notes), a two-time Cup champion with New Jersey who now centers the Blackhawks' fourth unit. "I saw him going down the wing and he had his head up the whole way and he really leaned on his stick, he really leaned into it … He lets that shot go a lot in practice, so I knew he was going there. It was a huge goal."
Huge because it gave the Blackhawks control of a pivotal Cup contest. Huge, because two goals late in a period – Hossa scored at 17:09, Eager at 17:37 – can be a killer in any game, especially to break a scoreless tie in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals. That 28-second stretch could be the decisive dagger of the 2010 NHL season. (How's that for an eager assessment?) That possibility wasn't lost on anyone, especially the player Eager replaced on his fateful shift.
"It was a great goal, a great shot, and he's a great player on our fourth line," said Patrick Kane(notes), who's still looking for his first points in the series. "On a lot of teams Eager would be on the second or third line and I think he could score 20 goals in this league."
Perhaps, but here's betting Eager is plenty happy to be getting six to eight minutes a night as a dangerous depth player on a loaded team. Or less ice time, on some nights. On Monday, Eager played just 4:03, including one lonely 44-second shift in the third period. Perhaps that was why he was so understated at the post-game news conference – "It was definitely a nice feeling to see that one go in" was all he said about his game-winning goal. Of course there was no misinterpreting Eager's joyful jump and exuberant rush into teammates' open arms after he scored.
"He scores a huge goal on a big shot, and a cool celebration, too," Burish said. "He was awesome. He was flying around and he was smacking guys and that's a big man, bigger than people know, and he hits to hurt."
He scores to hurt, too, as the Flyers found out.
"I played with him for a while," said Philadelphia captain Mike Richards(notes), "and his skill level is big. He's obviously a strong guy … a guy that I think we have to try to stay away from and not let him take us away from the game. A guy we have to know who's on the ice when he's out there."
That's a lot of respect for a fourth-line player. But then again, Eager isn't your run-of-the-mill fourth-liner, and the Blackhawks aren't your run-of-the-mill team. That is why Chicago is two wins from clinching the Stanley Cup for the first time in 49 years.
"We're gonna get production from all four lines and that just shows how dangerous this team is," said Chicago captain Jonathan Toews, who's now riding a two-game pointless streak after a 13-game playoff binge. "Eager stepped up and scored a huge goal and we know he's going to ride the confidence of this one for the rest of the series."
That's bad, sad news for Philadelphia – not just to be beaten, but to be beaten by one of its own, a prototypical Flyer who hits all the time and scores at the most important time.