The 2010 NHL Playoffs have reached their culminating event—the Stanley Cup Finals. But it's obvious to see, the two combatants for hockey's biggest prize aren't exactly who we expected.
The Chicago Blackhawks actually were one of the fan favorites to reach this point, having advanced through two rounds of the playoffs last year and then earning the second seed in the the Western Conference heading into the postseason this time around.
Led by Norris Trophy-candidate Duncan Keith and a 1-2-3 punch of scoring-minded forwards, the Blackhawks were definitely one of the front-runners from the start.
However, their opponent for the Cup was anything but a top candidate. The seventh-seeded Philadelphia Flyers didn't even qualify for the playoffs until a shootout against the Rangers on the final evening of the regular season.
Despite high expectations heading into the 2009-10 campaign, Philly struggled at times and wasn't able to sneak into the postseason until former Cup-winning coach Peter Laviolette was brought in.
With a depleted goaltending squad and a brutal match-up against Martin Brodeur's Devils facing them in the first round, hopes for the Flyers looked anything but bright—but then, the tides turned. The Flyers easily destroyed New Jersey, then recovered from two different 3-0 deficits, in the series and then in the final game, to make history in defeating the Boston Bruins in the second round.
Following their record-setting comeback, the Flyers then capped off their Eastern Conference run by finishing off the East's other Cinderella story, Montreal, in a one-sided five game affair in the NHL's first ever meeting of the No. 7 and No. 8 seeds in the conference finals.
With all that momentum, the Flyers and Blackhawks are going to go into Game One of the Stanley Cup Finals Saturday night without a favorite. Most experts and fans alike agree this series is too close to call. For now, the only ones favoring Chicago are the Hawks themselves.
But, from my perspective, they have plenty of reasons to feel so surprisingly optimistic. Just a simple analysis of the "numbers" from not only this year's postseason but also the regular season, and it's clear that the Blackhawks have more reasons to feel happy about drawing such an opponent than just their respective seeds.
Oh, there's definitely more than just their seeds. Here are five causes for the Blackhawks to be optimistic and improve their mood as the week winds down, in no particular order.
(Photo Credit: Committed Indians website)
I may have said the Hawks' reason to be optimistic wasn't just because of their advantage in the seedings, but that fact is definitely one of the factors.
Chicago was seeded second in the clearly-superior conference, and were just one point out of the top seed. Philadelphia was seventh in East, and just one point into a playoff berth. In truth, Chicago won 11 more games and earned 24 more points during the regular season, and even with the playoffs combined, still have that 24-point edge.
One of the key reasons for that impressive margin was goaltending. From October to April, Philadelphia had three goaltenders start more than 28 games and not one of them logged a save percentage above .905. Meanwhile, in Chicago, 23-year-old Antti Niemi took over for Cristobal Huet and logged a .914 save percentage, 2.25 goals-against average, and extremely impressive 26-7-4 record.
Another major advantage for Chicago going into this series is that they are a far greater goal-scoring threat than any other team Philadelphia has met thus far. Although the Flyers may have won three straight series of their own, not one of their victims were known for their high-tempo offense.
First, the Flyers easily handled the Devils, but, at least during the regular season, New Jersey was the highest goal scorers of any of Philly's three opponents in the postseason, ranking an impressive 19th in the NHL in that regard.
Next up was the Boston Bruins, who, despite coming far closer than either of the other two at eliminating Philadelphia, were the worst of the three in offense, finishing in last place in the league in goals-for during the regular season.
Finally, Philadelphia's third defeated opponent of the 2010 playoffs was Montreal, who was 26th among the 30 NHL teams in goals during the regular season.
So you get what I mean. Philadelphia hasn't exactly had to deal with an offensive powerhouse yet, despite being 75 percent of their way to the title of "Stanley Cup Champions."
However, if they want to earn that highest honor, their easy run is going to have to come to an end. Chicago was a very solid third in the league in goals during the regular season, and are also third among the 16 teams that qualified during the playoffs this season in goals for per game.
(Photo Credit: Telegraph.UK Newspaper)
If the Blackhawks can quickly jump out of the starting gate each game, it will also give them a massive advantage in putting away the Flyers each and every game.
During this year's postseason, Chicago is 7-1 when scoring first and 5-0 when leading after the first period. Meanwhile, on the other hand, Philadelphia has suffered four of their five losses during these playoffs when their opponent lit the red light before them, and are additionally 2-3 when trailing after just 20 minutes of play.
Those statistics are going to give Chicago a big motivation to jump out to an early lead out of the locker room and just keep fighting to stay ahead, whether by one goal or six goals.
Philadelphia may have won 12 of their 17 games so far since the regular season concluded, but, except for Game Seven in Boston, have been out of luck when trying to recover from an early blow.
Those are the sounds of the Flyers fans and staff from the past few weeks, marveling at what is currently begun to be regarded as one of the best waiver pickups in quite a while. Former-Carolina Hurricanes goaltender Michael Leighton was picked up off of re-entry waivers back in late 2009, and the benefits were quickly made apparent.
Since relieving Brian Boucher in the Bruins series, Leighton has won six of his seven starts, and posted a (nearly) jaw-dropping .948 save percentage, 1.45 goals-against average, three shutouts in his last four games, and an uncanny sense of relaxation in the tensest of situations.
Not quite the healthiest of players this season, as I mentioned earlier, the Flyers had three goalies with more than 28 starts, and two more than made at least one NHL appearance.
The reason for that "depth," as you might be able to call it, was solely because of injuries. Also, despite joining the Flyers mid-season, Leighton has also already had a relatively major injury this spring, and could go down again at any time. And if he does, it just might be lights out for the City of Brotherly Love, who really don't have any more backups available anymore. (Let's see how well Johan Backlund will fare in a Cup Finals series...)
Or, in other terms, a Leighton injury would be lights-on for the Chicago offense—in a major way.
In addition to the four particularly notable reasons for optimism from the Hawks I've already stated, there are also a few lesser-role players in Chicago's high-hopes reasoning.
First off, Chicago's home ice advantage seems that it might be more than just an advantage in this series. Philadelphia won only 17 of their 41 regular-season victories away from Wachovia Center, and finished with a less-than-mediocre 17-21-3 away record.
On the contrary, Chicago was practically unbeatable in United Center this season, coming out on top 29 times compared to just eight regulation defeats and four more in overtime or a shootout.
Furthermore, the Blackhawks also hold a significant edge in experience, as they reached the Western Conference Finals last season as well. Despite falling to the then-defending Stanley Cup Champion Detroit Red Wings, this year is more of a second-chance for the Blackhawks.
Almost everyone expected to dress for Game One played most of Chicago's 33 playoff games over the past 14 months, a significant difference over Philadelphia's mere 23.
Lastly, the starting lineups for each night also are in the "pro" column for the Hawks. While Philadelphia's top line of forwards produced a seemingly decent 176 combined points over the regular season and 56 throughout the postseason so far, Chicago's top trio blew them away in that regard, logging 222 up to April and another 62 since.
Not too bad, you think? When you put it together with all of Chicago's other advantages, you wonder why this series is supposed to be a tight one.
However, there are definitely reasons the Flyers are building off of themselves.
Who is your early favorite to take home Lord Stanley's Cup? Weigh in the comments section, and let me know of any corrections, questions, or complaints as well. Let's just all hope for a great series!