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The Grand Finale – Chicago vs Philadelphia in the Stanley Cup Finals

In Hockey on May 29, 2010 at 2:02 pm

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.

For extensive coverage on the forthcoming NHL Entry Draft, please follow my work at Draft America.

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1 & 2 7 & 8 – Here We Go!

In Hockey on May 15, 2010 at 5:16 pm

— By Ryan Wagman

I’ll admit it once more; I stumbled in the first round. The Western Conference was straight-forward enough, but the East threw me (and not just me) for a few loops, knocking out the top three seeds before anyone really knew what was going on. But I recovered. Understanding what I missed in the first round, I looked again, and nailed the second round, correctly seeing the Sharks true top line (Thornton, Marleau and Heatley) waking up to contribute to Little Joe Pavelski’s line and knocking off the Red Wings. I saw Luongo’s propensity for fallibility and the world-class, playoff-level grit and class of Jonathan Toews and a rock-solid blue line allowing the Blackhawks to knock off the Vancouver Canucks. That gives us 1 and 2 from the West. Somehow, someway, I saw the Canadiens knocking off the defending champs of Pittsburgh in a seven game set. More amazing that they did so without Andrei Markov after the first game. For the most part, I was even correct about it being a generally low scoring affair, with four games of five or fewer goals, and only once more than seven. I did think it would be easier for the Flyers to knock off the Bruins, while they instead gave us history. While most of Canada was watching the Habs defeat the Penguins, riveted by Mike Cammalleri and Jaroslav Halak, we largely ignored the one series of this year’s playoffs that will likely have the longest lasting impact on history. For only the third time in NHL history, a playoff team has come back from a 3 games to nothing deficit and win a series. The Flyers did it even as they lost another goalie to injury, Boucher going down just in time for Michael Leighton, their star of earlier in the year, to return with a glorious two and a half games. Not only did the Flyers return from a 3-0 hole in games, but in game 7, they also trailed 3-0 in the first period, slowly chipping away at the lead until Simon Gagne reminded us that he, too, had returned from his injury woes and scored the winning goal. The 2010 Boston Bruins will now forever stand in ignominy beside the Pittsburgh Penguins of 1975 and the Detroit red Wings of 1942 as the biggest chokers in the history of the game, team category.

So there are now four teams left. On with it, then:

Campbell (Western) Conference

San Jose Sharks vs Chicago Blackhawks

To start with, both teams are pretty healthy, remarkable for this time of the year. The Sharks can play their optimal roster, and it looks like Kim Johnsson, the Hawks big mid-season addition will be ready to play early in the series, if not right away. We have here two marvellous hockey teams, possibly the two best teams overall this season. And they are both at the tops of their respective games. The Sharks did not any exploitable weaknesses in demolishing the Red Wings, other than one really bad period against the Mule. The Sharks have been resting since the 8th, enough time for rust to take hold of their previously finely oiled machine. Then again, the Hawks are also very well rested, completing their series against Vancouver on the 11th. Five days is also enough time to grow a little stiff without game action.

Reports came out that Blawkhawks coach Joel Quennville will play his top defensive pairing of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook against the Thornton-Marleau-Heatley line, putting the onus back on Pavelski, Clowe and Setoguchi to repeat their exploits from their first round conquest of Colorado, when they combined for 22 points over the six-game series. Another great series from goalie Evgeni Nabokov would also go along way towards putting the Sharks in the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in franchise history. He has quietly had a stellar playoffs, besting even Jaroslav Halak in 5-on-5 GAA (1.84 for Nabby, compared to 2.07 for Halak). Niemi has the worst 5-on-5 GAA among remaining goaltenders, at 2.47. The key here may be the power play. Bearing in mind that there really is no such thing as momentum in the playoffs, Niemi has the best shorthanded GAA of all remaining goalies at 3.72 (a phenomenal stat) while Nabokov came in at 7.94 – middle of the pack. A key to the series for the Hawks would be for Kane and Toews to continue drawing penalties (they have 6 and 5 respectively, so far) from the Sharks blueline. The more time they spend on the power play, the greater their chances of winning the series.

In taking all three games in Vancouver in the last round, the Blackhawks have shown that they can play as well, if not better, on the road, than they do at home at the United Center. They are not infallible. As I stated last time, Niemi is not the most convincing goalie out there. If the Sharks can crash the crease, Niemi will probably provide them with a few tasty rebounds to feast on. He will need his defense-corp to clear those pucks for him to minimize second chance shots. Beyond Keith and Seabrook, Campbell will need to continue his strong comeback from a broken clavicle suffered late in the regular season, and Niklas Hjalarsson will need to continue to play strong, quiet hockey. If Johnsson comes back soon and allows the Hawks to bench Jordan Hendry, they will be that much stronger for the change.

This has the makings of a remarkable, memorable series, something to think about during a long summer without hockey. I’m sticking with my earlier assertion. The Blackhawks appear in their first Stanley Cup Final since 1992.

Prediction: Blackhawks in 7.

Wales (Eastern) Conference

Philadelphia Flyers vs Montreal Canadiens

7 and 8. In so many ways, the opposite of the Western finals. Beyond the seeding, these are both teams missing key players with injuries, Andrei Markov still out with a knee injury and Flyers winger Jeff Carter still recovering from foot surgery and Brian Boucher shelved with a sprained MCL.

So far in these playoffs, besides bucking the odds, both the Flyers and the Habs have had very strong play on special teams, both among the most efficient penalty killers in the league and both around average on the power play. Montreal has had a number of players really step up so far, including the goal-scoring exploits of Mike Cammalleri, the Drew Doughty-level (seriously, it’s close) of P.K. Subban and of course, Jaroslav Halak. Hal Gill and Josh Gorges have been absolute rocks on the backline. The Flyers have succeeded through a team-wide effort, without any real leaders rising above the rest. The two forwards most conspicuous in their absence, James van Riemsdyk and Scott Hartnell woke up recently, Hartnell with 4 points during the Flyers’ historic comeback after amassing two in their first 8 playoff games and van Riemsdyk scoring his first career playoff goal to get the Flyers on the board in game 7, when they trailed 3-0. Chris Pronger has had a solid playoffs, with 11 points in his 12 games while generally matched up against the best his opponents had to offer. The top four defensemen consisting of Pronger, Matt Carle, Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn have helped ensure the Flyers were strong defensively, regardless of the man between the pipes. First, it was Brian Boucher, coming off of a lousy season, but responding to being pressed into emergency action, stonewalling the Rangers in a do-or-die shootout to end the regular season and then outplaying Martin Brodeur over 5 games in the first round. After he went down, Michael Leighton returned from his long-term injury to put up numbers reminiscent of his out-of-nowhere midseason arrival in Philadelphia after a decade in hockey purgatory. Another good series or two could pave the way for a Tim Thomas-like late-career renaissance.

More than perhaps any other series this year, this one is geared for an unsung hero to step up and create a new reputation. If I have to pick one guy from each team, I will go with Dominic Moore to show why two years in a row, a team has given up a second-round pick to rent his services for month and more. A good series could see Moore, a very good, generally unsung player reap a multi-year deal this summer, when or before his current contract expires. For Philadelphia, I am picking Braydon Coburn. He’s had a quiet playoffs thus far, playing well in his own end, but not providing much up the ice, with only a single assist to his credit. He’s shown the ability to score in the NHL before, and I can easily see him scoring two important goals for his team, beefing up his resume as he becomes an RFA in July.

Last June, during the first round of last year’s Entry Draft, Flyers GM Paul Holgren acquired Chris Pronger and AHL-fodder Ryan Dingle from the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for D Luca Sbisa, a 19-year-old former 1st round pick who had already played 39 games in the NHL, Joffrey Lupul, another former first rounder who had matured into a decent 2nd-line winger, the 21st overall pick in last year’s draft (which was then traded to Columbus), a 1st round pick in the 2010 draft and another conditional pick this year or in 2011. Chris Pronger has been a king-maker since the lockout, taking unheralded teams much further into the postseason than anybody could have reasonably expected going in, including leading the Oilers to the Finals in 2006, winning the Cup with the Ducks in 2007 and taking the Ducks past top-seed San Jose last Spring. If he does it again, we can unequivocally state that Holgren won the trade, regardless of how Sbisa and the first rounders pan out.

I think Paul Holmgren made a great trade.

Prediction: Flyers in 7.