- By Ryan Wagman
And so it comes down to this. Perhaps the two teams most expected to make it this far when the season started, have, after all, made it this far. A fairly unreported story so far (at least that I’ve seen) is how closely these two rosters resemble those that started the year. Neither the Blackhawks nor the Flyers were very active at the trade deadline. Of most significance for the ‘Hawks, they sent former #3 overall pick Cam Barker to Minnesota in exchange for Kim Johnsson, thinking that the Swedish vet would provide a big upgrade for their third pairing. Instead, Johnsson got his bell rung after 8 games as a Hawk and has yet to play since. The absolute dearth of news on that front indicates that he will miss the Finals as well. The Flyers are also a testament to the team architected by Paul Holgren when the season began. Famously, their goalie is changed, as the flier they took on Ray Emery washed out (although not for the reason many expected when he was signed). Waiver wire pickup Michael Leighton has done his best Tim Thomas impression as a late bloomer who simply can’t be beat. Michael Leighton, last Canadian, nay, last North American goalie standing. Whoda thunk it? Other than between the pipes, third line energy-bringing winger Ville Leino is the only other significant change from the team that opened the season for Philadelphia way back on October 2, in Raleigh.
The lesson here? I say there are two. First, that getting the best goalie is not as important as getting a good goalie and then surrounding him by a rock-solid blueline. At this time last year, no one (seriously – NO ONE) could have possibly anticipated that the Stanley Cup starting netminders would be Michael Leighton and Antti Niemi. The former, career journeyman who had yet to appear in a postseason matchup of NHL significance, and the latter, a kid who had barely had a single full AHL season under his belt.
The second lesson is that a team’s best bet to win is build the team in the off-season, and use the trade market only to augment a minor piece here and there. Paul Holmgren and Dale Tallon (he built the team – don’t let his fall-guy role from last summer’s debacle tell you different) have both done an outstanding job with their respective teams, and fans of the Florida Panthers (if you’re still out there) have good reason to hope for a change to finally appear.
So now a phenomenal hockey season comes down to one winner-take-all series between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Philadelphia Flyers. A quick look at the regular season standings tells us that the ‘Hawks had a far better year, finishing with 24 more points than Philadelphia, while playing in the supposedly superior Western (Campbell) Conference. The Blackhawks also scored 35 more goals than the Flyers while surrendering 16 less. But as I’ve said before, and I’m now saying again, the regular season is over. The playoffs are a new season, played under different rules and heightened urgency. Both teams have seemingly gotten stronger and stronger as the postseason has progressed. The Flyers easily handled the Devils, even as they lost Simon Gagne and Jeff Carter. Gagne returned and they emerged from an early 3-0 hole (3rd time in NHL history) to overcome the Bruins in the second round, even as the surprisingly effective goaltender Brian Boucher went down to injury. Michael Leighton came back from his long-term injury, and shut the door on the suddenly punchless Bruins. And then came the vaunted 7-8 matchup between the Flyers and the Canadiens, fresh off of consecutive giant-slayings of the Alex Ovechkin’s Washington capitals and Sidney Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins. But the Canadiens were flat (outside of game 3) and the Flyers took the Conference in a five game set.
The Blackhawks struggled a little bit against the Nashville Predators in the first round, requiring six games to advance. In the second round, they faced a re-match against the run-and-gun Vancouver Canucks. After starting soft and dropping the first game 5-1, the Hawks handily outplayed the ‘Nucks over the next five to advance to the Conference Finals for the seconds year in a row, looking to prove that they were a better, more mature team than the one that fell to the Red Wings last year. And they were. Facing the top seed from San Jose, the Blackhawks advanced to their first Stanley Cup Finals since 1992 by sweeping the Sharks in four closely fought games.
The things I look for in these series, are if there are matchups that can be exploited by the opposing teams. The Blackhawks do a very good job of shielding their bottom end guys. Ben Eager and Adam Burish, their fourth-line wingers, are both averaging under 7 minutes played per game. As we could expect, neither has really done anything – but they haven’t hurt the Blackhawks overmuch either. Their centre, John Madden gets a few more minutes as he kills penalties and is used for some important faceoffs, as well. Their sixth defensemen, Jordan Hendry, is also hidden, getting 8:15 per game, more than ten minutes below that of their 5th d-man, Brent Sopel. Hendry is definitely a weak spot as he has the worst +/- on the team, even though he has played so little. Expect more (or less) of the same on that front. The Hawks’ top three forward lines and five defensemen can all hurt most teams, with speed, size and tenacity. They control the puck, so the opposition cannot.
The Flyers have a very strong top four on their blueliner, led by the consummate winner, Chris Pronger and able augmented by Braydon Coburn, Kimmo Timonen and Matt Carle. Unfortunately, their third pair has been very weak, and there isn’t much to suggest they can turn things around against such a deep and talented team as the Blackhawks. Peter Laviolette will try to limit the time on ice of Ryan Parent and Lukas Krajicek, but (especially in Chicago) Quenneville will attack them. Furthermore, while the Flyers can ice two awesome forward lines using some combination of Mike Richards, the recently returned Jeff Carter, Claude Giroux, Danny Briere, Simon Gagne and Ville Leino, their remaining forwards offer more scrap than ability (Hartnell, Laperriere, Carcillo (who has taken to not dressing), Asham), or like the young James van Riemsdyk, have simply not been producing.
I fully expect a great series to give this season a fitting end. No matter the outcome, a champion will be crowned who has not seen glory in many of our lifetimes. And if my thinking is correct, the NHL’s longest running playoff drought will cease. Marian Hossa will finally show up on the right side of Stanley Cup finals. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say he will score at least two goals and overturn the curse of the Hossa. Seabrook and Keith will clear most of the rebounds that Niemi allows and will otherwise force the Flyers to the perimeter where they will shoot low percentage shot after low percentage shot. Patrick Kane will score at least one amazing goal and Dave “the Rat” Bolland will draw at least two silly penalties from the Flyers. Michael Leighton will play well enough to earn a nice two-year deal from the Flyers, but not well enough to lift the Stanley Cup over his head.
Prediction: Blackhawks in six. Jonathan Toews wins the Conn Smythe.
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