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.