Once again, a few comments on the round that was and on to the round that will be. We didn’t learn too much in the previous round. Many thought the Blackhawks were going to beat the Sharks, and they did—winning four very tight games. Chicago keeps rolling on two dynamic scoring lines, steady defense, and a strong goaltender. In the east, many expected Philadelphia to continue its run right through Montreal—and they did.
Stanley Cup Final:
(2) Chicago Blackhawks (12-4) [1.24 5on5, 22.6% PP, 86.6% PK] vs. (7) Philadelphia Flyers (12-5) [1.39 5on5, 20.7% PP, 87.0% PK]
Chicago has solidified themselves as the best team in the NHL throughout this season, with a very impressive regular season and flashes of dominance in the playoffs. The forwards, led by Jonathan Toews (7G, 19A, +4) and Patrick Kane (7G, 13A, +2) are numbers 1 and 3 in playoff points (although they combined for only one goal against San Jose). The team can score from the blueline as well, and also play steady defense, led by Duncan Keith (1G, 9A, +3) and Brent Seabrook (3G, 6A, +8). Antti Niemi (12W, 2.33GAA, .921 Sv%) has been very good. The Blackhawks also have a second line of punch that the Flyers will have to deal with, including Patrick Sharp (7G, 9A, +3), Marian Hossa (2G, 9A, +8), and a surprising showing from Dustin Byfuglien (8G, 2A, -3). Chicago should be able to get goals and their defense is good enough to stop any rush that Philadelphia throws at them. If Seabrook, Keith, and the boys can stop the Flyers forecheck and Niemi plays like a Conn-Smythe winner, this will be a quick series and the Flyers will be forever known as that team as “who was that 7 seed that made a run in 2010?”
The seven-seed underdog Flyers continue their improbable run. The Flyers have found a way to get better throughout the playoffs and have since added their top goal scorer and their best penalty killer. Concerns about long minutes to a strong set of blueliners are the only concerns about this team’s health. The Flyers have regained sniper Jeff Carter (4G, 1A, +1) and sparkplug Ian Laperriere (0G, 1A, -2) and also survived without Simon Gagne (7G, 3A, +6). But the story of the Flyers has been the emergence of Mike Richards (6G, 15A, +6) as a force to be reckoned with, Claude Giroux’s (8G, 9A, +10) inauguration into an undeniable NHL superstar of the future (if not today), and Danny Briere’s reemergence (9G, 9A, +4). On the back end, Michael Leighton (6W, 1.45 GAA, .948 Sv%) continues his fairy tale run through the playoffs. Not to be outdone, the Flyers has been the steady of their top four defensemen, Chris Pronger (4G, 10A, +2), Matt Carle (0G, 10A, +10), Kimmo Timonen (0G, 8A, +6), and Braydon Coburn (1G, 2A, +7), who have kept their goaltenders workload in check. With Carter back healthy, scoring depth at forward, shut-down defense, and the steady Leighton in net, there isn’t anything that can stop the Flyers, except for mistakes on the back end and “beating themselves”.
All in all, the pundits have made it very clear that the Flyers don’t stand a chance. The Blackhawks have too much scoring depth, strong defense, and outstanding goaltending. While this is true, it’s also true about the Flyers. In fact the Flyers have three scoring lines, whereas Chicago has two. Keith and Seabrook are outstanding, but so are Pronger and Carle. Niemi has been outstanding, but Leighton has been even better. The Blackhawks have a dynamic power play and a shutdown Penalty Kill—so do the Flyers. The Blackhawks have the ability to exhibit a relentless forecheck—so do the Flyers.
Thus, I don’t see this as a landslide series—I see this as an outstanding series that could rejuvenate hockey in America. If you peel back the onion on hockey superstars (Ovechkin and Crosby are the obvious guys), Jonathan Toews and Mike Richards need to be in this conversation—one of those two will be instrumental in winning Olympic Gold and will have captained a team to the Stanley Cup title in the same year—this deserves more recognition.
The team that wins this series will be able to solve the other team’s goalie—and the way to beat Leighton and Niemi has been to get second-chance opportunities through a dynamic forecheck and relentless play in front of the crease that frustrates the other team’s defense. Chicago is more suspect to a relentless forecheck, based on a young core of defensemen that have made a lot of turnovers. While Byfuglien has gotten a lot of press for his in front of the crease antics, the Flyers have more than one guy capable and willing of going in front of the crease. Similarly, it will be interesting to see if Byfuglien is as prolific playing against Pronger.
Thus, I can’t believe I’m about to say this…
Flyers in 5.