So we have our 2010 Stanley Cup Finals matchup as the second seed of the Western Conference Chicago Blackhawks face off against the surprising seventh seed of the Eastern Conference Philadelphia Flyers. Regardless of the winner, a long Cup draught will end as Philadelphia has not won since the Broad Street Bullies days of 1975 and Chicago has not won since 1961 with Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Glenn Hall. Let’s first break down how these teams got here and take a look at the offense, defense and goaltending of the two teams that will fight for Lord Stanley’s Cup.
How They Got Here
The second seeded Blackhawks shook off an early scare by the seventh seeded Predators, who actually held a 2-1 series lead, to defeat Nashville in six games. The crowning moment of that series for the Hawks was in the pivotal Game 5 when Patrick Kane tied the game with 13.6 seconds left with Marian Hossa in the box for a 5:00 major. The Blackhawks would kill of the rest of the penalty in OT, and Hossa scored the overtime-game winner, killing the Predators spirit and taking over the series. Toews led the team in points (8) and Kane led the team in goals (4) in the opening series.
In the Conference Semifinals, the Blackhawks faced a familiar opponent as they matched up against the third seeded Vancouver Canucks for the second consecutive season, and this one had similar results.
Again the Blackhawks started the series slowly losing Game 1 and were down 2-0 in Game 2, but stormed back with three third period goals to win that game. The Hawks went on to win the next two games on the road, which became a theme for this team, by a combined score of 12-6. Game 5 resulted in a home loss but again they took the series in 6 games by winning their third road game of the series. Once again Toews led the team in points in the series (12) and was tied in goals in the series by Dustin Byfuglien (4).
The Western Conference Finals was not as big of a challenge as expected for the Hawks as they played the top seeded San Jose Sharks. They outscored the Sharks 13-7 in a four game sweep that saw the emergence of rookie goalie Antti Niemi, who faced 136 shots in the four games, with a .949 save percentage. Byfuglien also had a coming out party as he scored three go-ahead-goals in the series including an OT game winner in Game 3. Once again Toews led the team in points (6) and Byfuglien led in goals (4) this series.
What can you say about Jonathan Toews this postseason? The 22-year-old already has half of his name etched on the Conn Smyth trophy as he leads the league in points through three rounds with 26 in 16 games played. The Blackhawks captain has come up huge in big spots with three game winning goals and has been a special team’s wiz as he leads the league in both power play points (13) and goals (5). Top linemate Patrick Kane is second on the team with 20 points and rounding out the top unit is the budding superstar Byfuglien, who has a team high 8 goals.
The wildcard on offense is the player that has been to three straight Stanley Cup Finals with three different teams. Marian Hossa was brought in this offseason as the missing piece to this talented team, secondary scoring to go with the top-notch scorers Kane and Toews. So far this postseason the 31-year-old winger has only two goals and 11 points. He had a disappointing three points in the seven game finals series last season, and will look to make that and his current playoff performance a memory. Hossa did have three goals and seven points in six games in the 2008 Stanley Cup Finals with the Penguins.
Lastly, on forward you have to make mention of the play of Dave Bolland. The guy they call the “Rat” has played a great two way game as he was in charge of shutting down the Sedin’s and the big three of the Sharks. The 6’0’’ center has also chipped in offensively five goals and five assists including the great pass to set up Byfuglien GW goal in Game 3.
The top unit of 26-year-old Norris Trophy finalist Duncan Keith and 25-year-old Brent Seabrook have been nothing but spectacular for this team. They have been playing big time minutes as their 827:03 minutes combined have allowed Coach Quenneville to run mostly five defenseman most of the playoffs. Combined the duo has 19 points, +8 and have 71 shots.
Those two combined with veteran Brent Sopel and surprising Niklas Hjalmarsson have created a penalty kill juggernaut that has killed off 86.6% of the penalties, good for 2nd in the league. The 22-year-old Hjalmarsson is third on the defensive unit in time on ice per game (21:12) and is an impressive +6 this postseason. His emergence as a steady defenseman has allowed Coach Quenneville to rotate the Swedish defenseman with both Sopel and former all-star Brian Campbell.
Speaking of the 30-year-old high paid defensemen, Campbell returned from a broken collarbone after a 17 game absence in Game 4 of the Predators series, and has not made an impact on the scoreboard with only three points in those 13 games. “Soup” has played smart defense shown in his +6 rating, but that mostly has to do more with the offense than his defense. For the Blackhawks to win the Stanley Cup they will need their 3-time NHL All-Star to stabilize this young but talented defensive core.
Antti Niemi did not play the majority of games in the regular season but this first year player has played admirable as the top postseason net minder. The 26-year-old, too old to be considered a rookie, has a 2.33 GAA, .921 and 2 shutouts in 16 playoff games. The Finnish goalie earned his postseason strips in the Western Conference Finals that saw him save 129 of the 136 shots faced in that series. Including two 40 save performances, he has not faced more than 38 in the regular season proving he could steal a game. The $5 million backup is Cristobal Huet who played 48 regular season games but most likely will continue his role of door holder for the finals.
How They Got Here
The seventh seeded Flyers faced off against their division rivals the New Jersey Devils, a team they won five of six against in the regular season, and took an early split on the road in the series. Tough guy Daniel Carcillo gave the Flyers the series lead with an OT game-winning goal that gave the Flyers an edge they never gave back.
The Flyers outscored the Devils 7-1 in the last two games of the series as Brian Boucher had a minuscule 1.59 GAA and .940 save percentage total in the series. Mike Richards led the team in points (8) and playoff performer Claude Giroux led the team in goals (4). The biggest news was the injuries to Jeff Carter, Simon Gagne and Ian Laperriere as the team closed out the series.
The next round against the fifth seeded Boston Bruins will be a series that will be talked about forever. The banged up Flyers playing without three regulars quickly went down 3-0, and their playoff lives seemed all but over considering only 1.2% of the 161 clubs have come back from a 3-0 deficit.
Game 4 would go into OT when Mark Recchi scored with 28 seconds left and Simon Gagne, in his first game back from injury, would be the OT hero extending the series back to Boston. Brian Boucher would leave in Game 5 with an injury in a 1-0 game. Michael Leighton, activated right before the game after being off for 3 months, came in to combine for a shutout. The Flyers played a perfect Game 6 at home as they would send this series to an improbable Game 7.
The Bruins at home were determined not to become the third team in NHL history to blow a 3-0 series lead, and came out strong with the games first three goals. Peter Laviolette would call a timeout to fire up his team and they responded getting a James Van Riemsdyk goal before the end of the period to make it 3-1 at the end of one.
The second period, which has belonged to the Flyers all postseason, saw goals from Scott Hartnell and Danny Briere to tie the game at three. The Bruins would be called for the trendy penalty of the postseason, too many men on the ice, and the series hero Simon Gagne put home the game winning goal capping the historic comeback. Briere led the team in points in this series (10) and goals (5).
The Eastern Conference Finals was another historic matchup as it was the lowest possible matchup you could have as the seventh seeded Flyers had home ice against the eighth seeded Cinderella Montreal Canadiens. Flying high off their comeback the Flyers stormed out of the series scoring the first nine goals in two straight shutout victories by Michael Leighton. The Canadiens woke up and had a dominant Game 3 5-1 victory. The Flyers then played a perfect road game limiting the Canadiens to only one second period shot in another 3-0 shutout victory for Michael Leighton.
The Flyers clinched their berth in the Stanley Cup Finals by winning on home ice as captain Mike Richards had an amazing shorthanded goal and Jeff Carter, who returned from a broken leg in Game 4, scored the game winning goal and added an empty netter. Claude Giroux led the team in points (6) and was tied in goals with Simon Gagne (3).
The Flyers are getting healthy at the right time as the addition of both Jeff Carter and Ian Laperriere give Peter Laviolette four lines he can roll with in any situation. The newly created top line of Mike Richards (team high 21 points), Simon Gagne, and regularly a center Jeff Carter on the wing, has shown some instant chemistry.
The second line of Danny Briere, team high nine goals, at his natural position of center with hard nose winger Scott Hartnell and surprising first year player Ville Leino carried the Flyers for a big stretch shown in Briere’s team high four game winning goals. The 26-year-old Finnish winger was inserted in the lineup when Carter and Gagne were injured and has not given up his roster spot as he has 12 points in 11 games, more than his 11 points in 55 regular season games with the Flyers and Red Wings.
But it has been the play of third line center Claude Giroux that has the Flyers where they are today. The 22-year-old former first round pick is second in the team in goals (8) and third in points (17) but it is his two way play that has been even more impressive as he is second in the league with a +10. The second year player has to continue his dominant playoff performances (22 career playoff points in 23 games) for the Flyers to have success in the Cup Finals.
The Flyers acquired Chris Pronger for this time of year, and he has done nothing but live up to expectations. The 35-year-old is tied for the league in points for a defenseman (14), second in goals (4) and power play goals (3), third in the league in block shots (51) and has played a league high 28:48 per game.
Right behind Pronger in minutes played is underrated defensemen Kimmo Timonen, who has averaged 26:35 per game. The 35-year-old Finnish defender has one of the most active sticks in the league with 42 blocked shots and is a +6. Having the option of having either Pronger or Timonen out there has given the Flyers an added edge this postseason against top scorers and will have to continue that way when matched up against the high scoring Blackhawks.
What has also helped the Flyers is the emergence of young defenders Matt Carle and Bryadon Coburn. The duel 25-year-old defensemen both had inconsistent regular seasons but both have had tremendous playoffs giving the Flyers arguably the best top four defenders in the playoffs. The 6’0” Carle is fifth in the league in plus minus (+8), has 10 assists and has blocked 42 shots. While the 6’5’’ Coburn has been playing a physical game with 36 hits, 27 blocked shots and is ninth in the league for defensemen with a plus minus (+7)
The Flyers had a revolving door in net this season, we saw seven different goalies dress in the orange and black, and five different players mind the crease. All that shuffling put the Flyers 15th in the league in GAA (2.71) as it went from Ray Emery to Brian Boucher to Michael Leighton back to Emery back to Leighton and then finally back to Boucher for the end of the regular season. Boucher had a spectacular start to the postseason as mentioned before but it wouldn’t be the Flyers goalie situation unless an injury occurred but Michael Leighton has answered the call.
The waiver wire pick up from the Carolina Hurricanes is 6-1 this postseason and leads the league in GAA (1.45), save percentage (.948) and shutouts (3). Those numbers are not bad for a 29-year-old journeyman who has played for nine different teams between the NHL and AHL, and whose season high of games was back in 2003-04 for the Chicago Blackhawks (34). Yes, Leighton is a former sixth round pick of the Blackhawks, so you know he will have extra motivation in this series.
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