The road to the Stanley Cup Finals is one paved with determination, resiliency, sacrifice, pain, heartache and jubilation.
Now let’s look at the Pucking Awesome Top 10 Storylines of the Stanley Cup Finals.
1. Cup Drought Over
The Philadelphia Flyers have not won a Cup since the Broad Street Bullies days in 1975. It has been longer for the Chicago Blackhawks, as they last won with the great Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, and Glenn Hall in 1961. So the top storyline to watch for is how one of these long droughts for a great hockey city will end.
2. Third Time's a Charm
First Marian Hossa lost in the Stanley Cup Finals as a Pittsburgh Penguin in 2008 to the Red Wings, then he jumped ship to the enemy and went on to lose the 2009 Cup to the Penguins as a member of the Red Wings.
Now Hossa goes for that elusive cup for the third straight season. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Hossa will become the first player in NHL history to play in three consecutive Stanley Cup finals for three different teams.
Hossa had an impressive finals appearance in ’08 with points in four of the six games (3G, 4A), but a disappointing Cup final last season with only three assists in the seven games. Will the third time be the charm for the veteran forward, or will this be known as the "Curse of Hossa"?
3. Welcome Back, Pt. 1
Michael Leighton was a sixth-round pick (165th overall) of the Blackhawks in the 1999 NHL Entry Draft. The 29-year-old goalie played a career-high 34 games in 2003-04, then the lockout came along with and injuries, and he was shipped off to Buffalo in 2005.
Four waiver-wire claims later, Leighton ended up in Philadelphia, which was desperate to find a backup with experience as injuries had ravaged its net.
To put that in even more perspective, the Carolina Hurricanes chose to keep 37-year-old journeyman Manny Legace over Leighton as their backup to Cam Ward, and now Leighton is four wins away from etching his name on the Stanley Cup against the very team that drafted him.
The Flyers' goalie situation has been one of the best storylines in the NHL for a long time, but the Leighton story has topped them all.
4. Welcome Back, Pt. 2
Patrick Sharp was a third-round pick (95th overall) of the Philadelphia Flyers in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft. The Vermont product went on to have a very productive AHL career for the Philadelphia Phantoms, culminating with a 2005 Calder Cup Championship with the likes of Mike Richards and Jeff Carter during the lockout.
When Sharp returned from the lockout, he was quickly put in the dog house of then-Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock and shipped off to the Blackhawks for Matt Ellison and a third-round selection, which will go down as one of the biggest coups in Blackhawks history.
All the 28-year-old has done is score 116 goals in his four-plus seasons in Chicago. Sharp, like Leighton, will be extra motivated to make that trade even more lopsided by hoisting the Cup as his former team watches.
5. 2007 NHL Draft
The Philadelphia Flyers just finished their worst season in franchise history. The Flyers had a 25 percent chance to win the lottery; only four teams could leapfrog them for that top pick, and one of them was Chicago, with an 8.6 percent chance.
The rest is history, as the Blackhawks won the lottery and the right to select OHL Rookie of the Year right winger Patrick Kane, and the Flyers took left winger James van Riemsdyk with the second overall pick.
Now three years later, these former teammates on the U.S. development team face off for the Stanley Cup. Their journeys are much different, as Kane came right to the NHL, won the Calder Trophy, and has solidified himself as one of the top snipers in the NHL while JVR spent two seasons developing at New Hampshire and currently is in his rookie season.
These two represent the first-ever Americans to go first and second overall in an NHL draft, and at the end of the series one of them will have bragging rights to own a Stanley Cup victory over the other.
6. Beginners' Luck
Ken Dryden, Patrick Roy, Cam Ward, and Antti Niemi—those could comprise the new answer to the trivia question "Name the first-year goalies that have led their team to a Stanley Cup championship."
Niemi has silenced many critics that said Chicago did not have the goaltending to win the cup with his 12-4 record, 2.33 GAA, .921 save percentage, and two shutouts. The 26-year-old Finn is too old to be considered a rookie and only had one season of North American play, the AHL Rockford IceHogs, before being called upon to be the goalie that brought this talented team to the promised land.
His season started with a shutout in front of his family and friends in Helsinki, and now he hopes to end it by skating around with the Cup.
7. We're Going Streaking!
This storyline could end the first game. It is worthy to note that Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews comes into the Stanley Cup Finals on a 13-game point streak, which is good for the franchise record; he also leads the postseason in points (26) through the first three rounds.
The 22-year-old is trying to keep a trend going of young captains hoisting the Cup, as Toews could be the second-youngest captain to Sidney Crosby to do so.
Toews, along with teammates Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, can also join the exclusive ranks of players who have won a gold medal and Stanley Cup in the same year. Only three other players have accomplished that—Ken Morrow (USA-New York Islanders, 1980), Steve Yzerman (Canada-Detroit Red Wings, 2002), and Brendan Shanahan (Canada-Detroit Red Wings, 2002).
8. Clark Reincarnated
On the other side, the Flyers are captained by the 25-year-old Mike Richards, often compared to the great Bobby Clarke, who was 24 years old when he captured his first of back-to-back Stanley Cups.
In fact, the last time a Stanley Cup has featured captains so young was back in 1975, when Clarke (then 25) won his second Cup against the Sabres and captain Jim Schoenfield (then 22).
Richards is right behind Toews in points scored this postseason (21 points) and is coming off his most impressive game these playoffs, with a highlight-reel shorthanded goal and a willpowered helper on the empty-net goal that sealed the series.
Toews' teammate and sometimes linemate on the Canadian Olympic team also allows Richards to try to join the exclusive club of a gold medal and Cup in the same year (along with Flyers teammate Chris Pronger).
9. Killing Those Penalties
Both of these teams pride themselves on not only being great penalty killers but also being dangerous when shorthanded. The Blackhawks led the league with 13 shorthanded goals and already have three this postseason. The Flyers had six this season after having 16 in 2008-09.
Mike Richards has 23 career shorthanded goals, and Marian Hossa has 21. Special teams is always going to be a storyline in a playoff series—just ask the Washington Capitals—but in this series it might be the team that takes advantage of the other team's power play that will be the one lifting the Cup.
Ian Laperriere is playing in his first Stanley Cup Finals; all it took was 16 seasons, 1,083 regular-season games, and 61 more in the playoffs. Not to mention numerous blocked shots, broken bones, and missing teeth.
Career history aside, for the veteran to be playing in this series is a story in itself, as Laperriere was hit in the face with a slap shot in Game Five of the first-round series against the Devils. Lappy was diagnosed with a brain contusion and a fractured orbital bone; some called it a career-threatening injury, and even the optimistic Laperriere said he would need a “small miracle” to play.
Thirty-one days after the injury he went on to play again as the Flyers finished off the Canadiens. He even had three blocked shots in those two games.
Only Montreal's Roman Hamrlik (1,322 total games) and Minnesota's Owen Nolan (1,265) have played more games without a championship,. The Flyers are hoping they can cross their emotional leader off that list.
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