As I sat a mere 6 rows from the ice staring at the back of Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Michael Leighton, I still could not believe what I had saw. Yes I know I am not supposed to favor one team here but being a life-long Philly guy, it was a moment of beauty to see a team that no one had believed in, make another big step towards history. The comeback kids find themselves four wins from the Stanley Cup.
Meanhwhile across to the Great Midwest where we see the NHL’s next possible “SuperTeam”, the Chicago Blackhawks made very quick work of the top seeded San Jose Sharks to punch their ticket into the Stanley Cup finals. With an amazing record of 55 wins to just 22 losses and the third highest point total in the league this season, Blackhawks are ready to take center stage.
Yes, it is in fact the “runaway train” of Chicago. Young, brash, fast, tough and reckless taking on the “little engine that could” from Philadelphia. A Flyers squad filled with some aged vets, some up-and-comers, and a “who is that guy in net” goalie. No, the Philadelphia Flyers did not have huge regular season numbers and as we all know very well by now, they needed to win a shoot-out on the last day to even be in the playoffs. Despite that, don’t dare tell this team the odds, and please continue to call them the underdogs.
So how did we get here? Well on the Flyers side it stands as quite a story. Beating the ultimate “monkey on their back” team in the New Jersey Devils in the first round in five games and looking like a team with something good to offer. Then accomplishing nothing short of history as they survived a 3-0 series deficit and then a 3-0 deficit in game 7 to take out the Boston Bruins 4-3. Next it was the Montreal Canadiens, yes those Canadiens. The giant killers who came back from 3-1 down to beat Washington, and the team to knock off the defending champs from Pittsburgh. Don’t tell Philly the odds. They dumped the Canadiens like a jilted girlfriend in 5 games.
Meanwhile the Chicago Blackhawks had a small scare from the Nashville Predators before taking them out in six games. They also took out the Vancouver Canucks in six games, but scored plenty on the guy many see as hockey’s best netminder in Roberto Luongo. After that it was a “ho-hum” 4 game sweep of the top seed Sharks and on to the finals.
Yes, it looks to many like a David vs Goliath Stanley Cup Finals match up, but you have to see things like this:
1. The Montreal Canadiens wiped out the two best of the East then got caught by surprise at what Philly had to offer. Perhaps Chicago’s destruction of the Sharks could pose as a similar over confidence boost?
2. Marian Hossa was with the Pittsburgh Penguins 2 season ago when they lost in the finals to Detroit. Then he jumped via Free Agency to the Detroit Red Wings the following season, only to lose in the finals again to the same Penguins team he left behind. Hossa now plays for the Chicago Blackhawks, which begs to ask “is it him, and not the teams that have the jinx label?”
3. Only 4 teams now in the history of sports have comeback from 3-0 playoff deficits. 2 of the previous 3 have gone on to win championships. Is karma on Philly’s side here?
4. The Philadelphia Flyers won round one of the playoffs against a two seed in New Jersey, and have not faced a number-one seed this playoff season. Is beating another two doable?
5. The Philadelphia Flyers, ironically enough won the Eastern Conference Finals on May 24th, which is also the birthday of the late great Flyer goalie Pelle Lindbergh. Coincidence perhaps?
Offense: One may say that the Blackhawks come into this Stanley Cup more talented then the Penguins did last season as a whole. With the youthful explosiveness of Jonathan Toews (7g,19a), Patrick Kane (7g,13a), Dustin Byfuglien (8g,2a) and guys like Pat Sharp (7g,9a) and the vet Hossa (2g,9a) they have been very hard to keep off the scoreboard. They seem to be able to play however the opponent tries to make them play. You want speed, they got it, you want to crash the net, they are big enough, you want slap-shots they can bring them. This is a young, fast, and opportunistic offense.
The Flyers have found a new sense of confidence in its offense and lately have been seen as a team that likes to break out on the odd rush, gamble, and use stick-handling to its fullest. Mike Richards (6g,15a), Danny Briere (9g,9a), overnight sensation Claude Giroux (8g,9a), Simon Gagne (7g,3a) and the returning Jeff Carter lead what is a Flyers attack with new heroes every game. No they don’t play huge or lightning fast, but they play it patient and smart and have added quick wrist shots and wrap-around goals back into the fold.
Summary: Each team has its own style, but the Blackhawks seem more able to force their will. Philly likes to bank on mistakes and the Hawks have not been making to many. If it’s a track meet from the word go, Philly’s checking game up front may not be enough.
Advantage: Chicago Blackhawks
Defense: Chicago has some good talent on defense and they can contribute on offense as well. The defense is anchored by Brian Campbell, who is one of the best in the game and its bigger hitter is the chippy Ben Eager. Duncan Keith, who has returned after losing 7 teeth and Brent Seabrook are a nice pair of young defenseman as well. The speed of the offense helps these guys play a better game, they can let up shots and can be worked on in a cycle style offense like the one Philly runs. Overall its a good bunch that can bang, and move the puck.
Rarely do you say that one guy is better then six, but when you have Chris Pronger on your defense it sure is a good argument. Pronger has been a beast in this post-season and will have to continue to be as he will be expected to hold back the Hawks big line. Savvy vet Kimmo Timmonen has been quiet, but when you talk defense, that’s what you want. The less you hear a defensemen’s name, the better he is doing his job. Youngsters like Matt Caryle and Ryan Parent have a nice mix of body and puck moving skill. This defense keeps this team in every game.
Summary: Chris Pronger has been here before. He knows this situation and through the playoffs has become a “lead-by-example” type role model for this defense. The Flyers do need to bang more and they can deliver it. The Hawks, when on defense will have to play more to prevent what the Flyers bring then attempt to dictate. In the end, I think Philly has more veteran savvy and sharper puck moving skill to eek out this department
Advantage: Philadelphia Flyers
Goaltending: Antti Niemi was not much more then the guy holding the bench door early in the season as Cristobel Huet was working the pipes for the Hawks. However since coach Quenneville made the change, this kid has been tough. A 12-4 record with a 2.33 GAA and 2 shutouts this post-season so far is excellent and at times he has made saves worthy of acrobats. I have seen plenty of this kid on the Sportscenter top 10 plays to last me awhile. Philly does like to come full charge at goalies, and took out 3 pretty good ones in Martin Brodeur, Tukko Rask, and Jaroslav Halak, so don’t expect them to be intimidated by a name or a reputation.
Michael Leighton has had some ride. Brought in by Philly and jumping right into action after Ray Emery went down for the year, then suffering an injury of his own and giving way to Brian Boucher, only to come back again and be very strong. A 6-1 record with a 1.45 GAA, and 3 shutouts in just 7 games so far has made Leighton look like the rebirth of Pelle Lindbergh to these Flyers. He is a huge presence in net at 6 foot 3 inches, he tosses aside shots at times with mere ease, and is more then nimble to make the tough saves. Leighton has been a pretty cool customer and was thrown right to the fire and has handled it quite well. He will have his hands full with this high-power Hawks offense.
Summary: Call me crazy, but this Philadelphia Flyers team seemed at its best this season with Leighton in net. His play has been far from what anyone had expected and it does not seem to be letting up. Niemi is still a bit of the unknown, and yes he has looked sharp, but as I said, the Flyers have heard this before about upcoming opponents goalies. The X-factor? Leighton has very little to lose here, and plays like he is just that cool.
Special Teams: Okay let’s not get all geeked out about numbers here. Both of these teams score nicely on power plays and both kill penalties well. What is unique is that 2 of the NHL’s absolute best killers go head to head. Chicago’s John Madden is one of the game’s legendary penalty killers and knows the Flyers well from his days in New Jersey. Meanwhile Mike Richards has scored more short-handed goals then anyone in the NHL over the last 2 seasons. The Hawks just seem to have more skillful and bigger forwards to make it tough on the power play. Philly has good killers up and down the roster, but they are going to need all of that plus.
Coaching: Chicago coach Joel Quenneville certainly has waited a long time for this. Over 1,000 regular season games coached with 535 wins is a nice resume, but this is his first cup appearance. He is a hard-nosed, no nonsense coach that likes the game rough, and his players tough. Last year after losing in the conference finals to Detroit he simply stated that he knew “this team is too good not to be back next year, and possibly win it all”. So far he is on the right track.
Prediction: These two teams have withstood all comers and each have their 12 wins thus far. The Flyers have only lost 5 and the Hawks just 4. The Flyers are truly Cinderella and with every passing series, everyone continues to say how they don’t belong, yet they play very much like they do. The Blackhawks are much more then the Flyers have seen yet and are well skilled and well tooled. If you want a feel good sports story the Flyers are it, and in these tougher times here in America, maybe that is what the fans are looking for, an against all odds, blue collar, blood-sweat-and tears type story. The Blackhawks are not here for storybook endings and if the Flyers want this they sure will earn it. Arenas? No advantage here as each building rocks and make noise unlike many in sports. The team that forces its style is the team that not just wins this thing, but owns it, and as much as many do not believe, I believe, and when you think about it, has that not been the Flyers motto these playoffs, Believe?
I “Believe” it is the Philadelphia Flyers in 7
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