If someone said to you in September that they liked a Chicago Blackhawks-Philadelphia Flyers Stanley Cup Final, you may have been lauded for a good choice.
In early April if you had said the Flyers would still be playing hockey in June, you might have guessed it would be a charity event rather than the Stanley Cup Final.
The Flyers road looks like something out of Rocky, except this one is actually happening. The Blackhawks road had a pothole or two, but was pretty smooth compared to the one Philadelphia had.
THE CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS
First, we head to Madison Street. The Blackhawks had a very tough first-round match-up with the Nashville Predators. The Predators led this series two games to one. The series would be tied at two games apiece, and with the Blackhawks trailing 4-3 late in game five, short-handed, and with their goalie on the bench, Patrick Kane delivered the tying goal with just 13.6 left on the clock. 4:07 into overtime Marian Hossa scored the game winner and the Hawks had the lead in the series. In game six, seven goals total were scored in the first period and Chicago held a 4-3 lead. Only an empty net goal by John Madden would be scored in the final two periods and the Blackhawks were back in the Western Conference Semifinals.
The Blackhawks were able to knockout the Vancouver Canucks in the conference semifinals for the second straight year in six games. In a series that pitted an inexperienced goalie in Antti Niemi, and one of the top goalies in hockey in Roberto Luongo, it was the Blackhawks who would put 21 goals past Luongo in six games. Niemi surrendered five fewer goals.
In the Western Conference Finals, the Blackhawks would face the No. 1 seeded San Jose Sharks. The Blackhawks were able to sweep the Sharks, but trailed at times in three of the four games.
The man with the most difficult pronunciation of any last name in the NHL has become a playoff hero. Dustin Byfuglien, pronounced “Bufflin” from that country known as Minnesota, the origin of his last name comes from Norway. Byfuglien has turned into the Al Czervik from Caddyshack, of the playoffs. The man is a menace. Instead of turning the United Center into condominiums, he has turned it into Buff’s Palace.
At six-foot four-inches and 260 pounds, “Big Buff” has not been big this playoff season; he has been huge. He played 82 games in 2009-10 and had 17 goals and 17 assists. In 16 playoff games, he has eight goals and two assists.
Four game winning goals in the playoffs, compared to three all regular season. Big Buff is starting to be that kind of Claude Lemieux/Esa Tikanen type player that puts up pedestrian numbers from October until March, but come April he is ready to go and become a force.
When he scores, the Hawks win. In the six playoff games where he has scored a goal, the Hawks are 6-0. Of the eight total goals he has scored, four of them have been game winners.
Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Chicago’s two young guns have delivered mightily. They have combined for 14 goals and 32 assists in the playoffs. Left wing Patrick Sharp is third on the team with 16 points.
Besides Byfuglien, whom people are starting to get to know, Dave Bolland has been a tremendous asset for Chicago. Bolland had just 16 points in 39 games during the regular season, but in the playoffs he has ten points in just 16 games during the playoffs. He is one guy that breaks through and with his speed can get in all alone and score on a breakaway.
THE PHILADELPHIA FLYERS
Now, to Broad Street. I cannot remember a team having a more twisted road to the Stanley Cup Final than the Philadelphia Flyers. This is a team that fired its coach and waived its starting goalie during the month of December.
The team won exactly half of its regular season games, 41. Twice this season the Flyers were one shot away from going home, once in the shootout against the Rangers, and in game four of the Bruins series where they won in overtime.
It has been said that in order to advance far in the playoffs you need consistent goaltending. The Flyers have gotten that, but it has been more than one person manning the pipes. The goaltending position in Philadelphia Ray Emery led the team in wins with 16 and was lost for the season on February 3rd with an injured hip.
The Flyers would face familiar division and turnpike rival, the New Jersey Devils. The Devils were the Atlantic Division Champions, and while many thought the Flyers could win one or two games, few thought they would win the series. The Flyers took five out six from the Devils in the regular season, and picked up right where they left off when the playoffs started. The Flyers beat the Devils in five games.
The Flyers went more than two weeks between home games in the playoffs. After winning game four against the Devils on April 20th , they would not return home until Wednesday, May 5th for game three against the Bruins.
Round two would be the stuff of legends. After losing the first three games of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Boston Bruins, the Flyers rallied to win game four in overtime on a goal by Simon Gagne. Gagne had been in crutches and a walking boot for the first three games of the series after breaking his toe against the Devils.
In Game Five, disaster struck at the 4:25 mark of the second period, when Flyers goalie Brian Boucher injured his knee and was taken off the ice and would not return. Michael Leighton would skate in between the pipes and pick up the shutout that was started by Boucher.
The Flyers would win game six, 2-1, after a great effort by Leighton that kept the Bruins shutout until the final minute of the hockey game.
In game seven, the Flyers trailed the Bruins 3-0 late in the first period. James Van Riemsdyk scored his first goal of the playoffs for the Flyers to end the first period scoring. The Flyers would rally to tie the game at three, after two periods. In the third period, the Bruins were called for too many men on the ice and the Flyers would capitalize on the power play, as once again it was Simon Gagne delivering the game winner in a game versus the Bruins. The Flyers became the first team since 1975 to win a series after trailing three games to none, and became the first team to win a game seven after falling behind three goals to none.
In the conference finals, the Philadelphia Flyers set another record that can only be tied and never broken. They are the first No. 7 seed to ever have home-ice advantage in a series.
While, Jaroslav Halak for the Canadiens had been the star goalie of the playoffs with his back-to-back road game seven victories against the best team in the regular season, the Washington Capitals, and the defending Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins. Halak was the goalie that grabbed all the headlines, but in the Eastern Conference Finals it was someone else’s turn to have players shaking their heads.
It ended up being Michael Leighton. Like Byfuglien, Leighton has shined this playoff season. Leighton has a career four shutouts, two of them came as a member of the Chicago Blackhawks in 2003-04. In the Eastern Conference Finals, Leighton had three shutouts.
Defenseman Chris Pronger. He has four goals and ten assists and besides the two referees and the two linesmen, he is on the ice more than anyone else. His 14 points lead all defensemen in scoring.
Center and Captain Mike Richards. Richards has six goals and 15 assists in the playoffs, and has nine of those points on the power play. He struggled in the Montreal series with just one assist, until he broke out in game five with a short-handed goal and two assists in the Flyers’ Eastern Conference clincher.
Right wing Danny Briere leads the team with nine goals, four of them being game winners. Right wing Claude Giroux is third on the team with 17 points.
Defenseman Kimmo Timonen. Timonen has no goals and eight assists, but is Pronger’s sidekick and has been rock solid. He only has a negative plus/minus rating in two of the Flyers 17 playoff games. While most eyes are on Pronger, it is Timonen that teams should be worried about.
The Flyers have guys that can score big goals; the Blackhawks just have guys that can score more of them. The Flyers have done a good job of staying out of the penalty box after their first-round series with the Devils had them averaging over six penalties per game.
The Flyers hit you when you have the puck and they hit you when you do not have the puck. Timonen and Pronger are the best pair in this series.
The Flyers’ forwards can also play defense and Daniel Carcillo plays a major part in that. He is an agitator and while he is no stranger to the penalty box, he is also no stranger to annoying the other team’s better players.
The Blackhawks do not have that one defenseman that can scare a team like the Flyers do with Pronger. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are very good players, but the overall strength of the Hawks lies on offense not on the blue line.
Neither one of these goalies has any experience in the Stanley Cup Final.
Antti Niemi is playing extremely well and has a record of 38-11 if you include his 12-4 record in the playoffs.
Michael Leighton has 1.45 goals against average in the seven games he has appeared for the Flyers, which include those three shutouts in the Eastern Conference Final.
If Leighton goes down in the final, does Ron Hextall or Bernie Parent get to replace him? Brian Boucher started practicing this week, but he will remain on the bench unless Leighton either plays poorly or is injured.
Technically, Niemi could be given the edge, but with the way Leighton played in the playoffs, I see this as being even and one goalie will make himself a star after this series.
Joel Quenneville can finally shake that monkey off of his back of never making it to the Stanley Cup Final.
The bizarre part of this is the question, if Laviolette’s Flyers lose the shootout to the Rangers, is he even back behind the bench in Philly?
Laviolette has been to hockey’s biggest stage and has won it. Despite, Quenneville having coached twice as many games, Laviolette has the jewelry and therefore a slight advantage.
Home-ice belongs to the Blackhawks and the United Center has been the biggest indoor party in Chicago.
Chicago hosted game one in the Western Conference Quarterfinal against Nashville, and the Western Conference Semifinal against Vancouver and lost both those games by a combined score of 9-2.
The Wachovia Center in Philadelphia has treated the Flyers extremely well. The Flyers are 7-1 at home in the playoffs. The Flyers are 5-4 away from Philly.
Overall, the Blackhawks are 5-3 on home ice. The Blackhawks are 7-1 on the road. I give Chicago the slight edge, and that is in part because I think this will be a long series and game seven at home will mean something.
Conn Smythe Trophy
It does not appear that either goaltender will get the award, unless Leighton has three shutouts in the Final as well.
The favorite for the Blackhawks is Captain Jonathan Toews. Toews has been putting on a clinic on how to pass the puck.
The favorite for the Flyers is Chris Pronger. It seems like the only time he is not on the ice is when he is in the penalty box.
The underdogs could be Michael Leighton for the Flyers, if he can have a couple of shutouts in the Stanley Cup Final, he may steal it from Pronger. For the Blackhawks, it is Dustin Byfuglien, he has done nothing but score big goals for his team and if he has a couple of game-winners in June, the engraver better learn how to spell his last name correctly.
WINNER: None of the above. Patrick Kane will win it. There have been 44 winners of the Conn Smythe Trophy and Brian Leetch in 1994 was the only American to win it. I think Kane will make it two for the US.
Blackhawks in seven. I absolutely love this series. The Blackhawks have not been hit like they will be hit by the Flyers, and the Flyers have not seen an offense that combines itself with the talent and strength like the Blackhawks.
This will not come easy. Against the Flyers, you have to be willing to get hit in order to drive the puck deep in the zone and get in close on goal.
There are two things we know for sure. First, one of these teams will end their Stanley Cup Final losing streak. The Blackhawks and the Flyers were both swept in their last appearance to the Stanley Cup Final. The Penguins swept the Blackhawks in 1992, and the Red Wings swept the Flyers in 1997. Second, one team will get to party with Stanley for the first time in a generation. If it is the Hawks, 49 years of frustration come to a close. If it is the Flyers, 35 years will have passed since the original Broad Street Bullies missing teeth and all carried the Cup through Center City.
All that being said, I have no idea how to pick against a team of destiny like the Flyers—what this team did this spring will not be done again for a long while.
I think this season will remind the Flyers’ fans of that magical run they had in 1987, where a working class Flyer team gave one of the great dynasties in hockey, the Edmonton Oilers everything they could handle and lost 3-1 in game seven of the 1987 Stanley Cup Final. Ron Hextall would win the Conn Smythe Trophy. The Flyers were not losers in that series, they were the underdogs just like they are in 2010, and finished exhausted but not defeated.
In the end, another 22 year-old captain will be hoisting the Stanley Cup, just like Sidney Crosby did last year with the Penguins. The Madhouse on Madison may need a new roof after it is over. The United Center may also need new speakers after “Chelsea Dagger” by The Fratellis is played for the 1000th time. And just maybe, third time is the charm for back-to-back runner-up in the Stanley Cup Final, Marian Hossa.