It’s not the matchup hockey prognosticators pegged when the playoffs began, but it could not have turned out any better for the National Hockey League, who have to feel a sigh of relief that the Chicago Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers are the two foes facing off for the Stanley Cup.
You can say the same about Ed Snider. The Flyers’ owner can jump at the fact that his team is playing for a championship and his television network VERSUS will be well-represented.
Dick Ebersol, President of NBC Sports, can also breathe easier knowing that Chicago and Philadelphia—two of hockey’s biggest markets—will attract a large following for the 2010 Stanley Cup Final.
NBC will carry the first two contests in Chicago, while Versus will carry Games Three and Four in Philadelphia before NBC airs the remainder of the series.
The two historic franchises have a lot of sentimental value to hockey fans and the league can used that to its advantage. It surely beats the potential San Jose and Montreal meeting that would have been a complete disaster for Gary Bettman.
Also helping the Hawks-Flyers tilt is the ratings that have spiked significantly this season through three rounds of the playoffs.
The league reports that coverage on Versus and NBC has been the most-watched since 2002 when ESPN held the rights to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
In Canada, the networks that carry the precious broadcast rights have cashed in on a great postseason. CBC has averaged 1.27 million viewers—a 33 percent increase from a year ago—and could see those numbers jump with the historic meeting set to start Saturday night. Meanwhile, TSN enjoyed a 112 percent increase during their playoff coverage, averaging close to an audience of one million (992,000).
A big part of the increase in television audiences across the league has been the star power, which highlights this matchup between the Blackhawks and Flyers who boast some of the best young talent in the game today.
The Western Conference champions have reached the Stanley Cup with two of the most dynamic players who have pushed Chicago to great heights in only three seasons.
Jonathan Toews, the playoff scoring leader with 26 points, has been a recking ball throughout the team’s playoff run—only continuing his dominant play from the 2010 Olympics, where he was a big piece of Canada’s gold medal win. Patrick Kane, who lost in that epic gold medal final, has not been a standout, but has the ability to strike at any time for the Hawks.
Teamed with that pair of snipers is Dustin Byfuglien, who has emerged as a big-time player who has been a thorn in every goaltender’s side. Entering the series, the 260-plus pound forward has scored in six straight games, including two game-winners, and notched his first playoff hat-trick in round two against the Canucks.
And folks, this is only Chicago’s top line. The Hawks can roll out Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa on the second line and arguably sport the best third line in all of hockey. Dave Bolland, who was a proven goal-scorer in juniors with London, has elevated his game once again in the playoff.
The third-line center from Mimico, Ontario has gone about his business quietly, and despite only two points in the first round against Nashville, he has four goals in the last two rounds—all of which have swung momentum in his team’s favor.
Bottom line is, Chicago has all four lines clicking—a recipe for any championship team. Like they have all playoffs, the Blackhawks will pose as a overbearing challenge, even for the defensively stacked Flyers, who have one of the best two top pairings in the NHL.
Yes, Chris Pronger is still a menace that can play 30 minutes a night despite his age (35) and fellow veteran Kimmo Timonen is another big body who will try to contain the Hawks. Youngsters Matt Carle and Braydon Cobourne are also capable of playing a shutdown role.
But Chicago’s depth will likely wear down Philadelphia as the series progresses and the Flyers may just have to rely on scoring to pull off the upset.
The so-called “team of destiny”—making the playoffs on the final day of the regular season before engineering a monstrous 3-0 comeback against Boston—will need outstanding performances from the likes of captain Mike Richards, Danny Briere, and Simon Gagne.
Philly also needs continued excellence from grinders Claude Giroux, who has eight goals and 17 points during the Flyers’ miraculous run to the Cup.
But you can’t forget about Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook who have emerged this season as the most dominant shutdown pair and will make it difficult for their Eastern counterparts to create offense.
Their two stud defensemen and overall offensive depth put the Blackhawks in front as favorites to win it all. And if Chicago is able to hoist Lord’s Stanley, it will break the longest championship drought in hockey dating back to 1961.
Either way, it will be jubilation for a diehard hockey market that deserves to bask in the glory of a Stanley Cup victory. While the Hawks are primed to break a 49-year stalemate, the Flyers have been waiting for a championship since Bobby Clark led the city to back-to-back Cups in 1975.