Two Cents' Stanley Cup preview
The Stanley Cup final begins Saturday night. One team was expected to be in it. That's the Blackhawks. The other team wasn't. That's the Flyers, who barely made the playoffs, then mounted an improbable comeback in the second round after falling behind 3-0 in their series with the Bruins. Here's a Two Cents preview of the Cup final.
Before the season, how many had even heard of Michael Leighton and Antti Niemi, let alone predicted they would be standing between the pipes in the Stanley Cup final. The Flyers' Leighton has been one of the playoffs' big stories. The 29-year-old journeyman has played for four NHL and five AHL teams over the past nine years. He took over for the Flyers in Game 6 of the Boston series after Brian Boucher was hurt and has gone 6-1 with three shutouts and a .954 save percentage. Not to run down his impressive numbers, but they did come against two teams -- Boston and Montreal -- that ranked in the bottom five in offense during the regular season. On the other side, Niemi has gone from backup at the season's start to playoff star with a 12-4 record and 2.33 goals-against average. In the process, he has gone from question mark to a chief reason the Blackhawks are favored to win the Cup.
The Sharks had trouble scoring against the Blackhawks in the Western Conference final, so the Flyers will, too, right? Not so fast. Maybe Philly doesn't have the flash of, say, San Jose, but it does have something that's better in the playoffs: depth. Nine players have at least three goals, led by Daniel Briere (nine), Claude Giroux (eight) and Simon Gagne (seven). And the leading scoring for the Flyers is Mike Richards, who has six goals and 15 assists. Also, there's Jeff Carter, who has missed much of the playoffs with a foot injury but returned in Monday's East final clincher against Montreal and scored two goals. On the other side, the Blackhawks are led by two of the premier young players in the league, Jonathan Toews, who leads all playoff scorers with 26 points, and Patrick Kane, who has seven goals and 13 assists. Then there's Dustin Byfuglien, who had 17 goals in the regular season but has eight in the playoffs, including four winners. Those three, along with Patrick Sharp, have scored 29 of the team's 53 goals.
Doesn't it seem like Chris Pronger has been playing for 50 years? Even at age 35, the Flyer continues to intimidate opponents and dictate a game's pace, which will be critical against the Blackhawks and their up-tempo style. The Flyers also have former Lightning Matt Carle and the steady duo of Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn, but then there's a big dropoff. Look for Pronger to play 30 minutes a game. Chicago's Duncan Keith might be the game's best all-around defenseman. He showed his toughness by returning to play in the last game of the West final vs. San Jose after having seven teeth knocked out by a puck during the game. Throw in Brent Seabrook, Brent Sopel and Brian Campbell, and the Hawks might have the best four defenseman of any team.
Special teams are what decide playoff games, and these two are about as even as it gets. The Blackhawks' power play is clicking at 22.6 percent in the playoffs, and the Flyers are right behind at 20.7 percent. The Blackhawks' penalty killers have an 86.6 percent success rate, and the Flyers are just a touch better at 87 percent. Both teams are winning less than 50 percent of their faceoffs, a key in special teams play. And both have taken about the same number of minor penalties. It's nearly impossible to predict which team has the advantage because their numbers are so close.
Both teams have solid veterans. Chicago's Joel Quenneville has helped turned the Blackhawks into an elite team again. Peter Laviolette took over for the Flyers in early December after John Stevens was fired. The Flyers didn't necessarily respond during the regular season, going 28-24-5 after Laviolette took over. However, Laviolette has found the formula for the playoffs. And he has won a Stanley Cup as a coach, with the Hurricanes in 2006.
The Flyers feel like a team of destiny. They made the playoffs by winning in a shootout against the Rangers on the last day of the regular season. Then they were down 3-0 in the second-round series against Boston and down 3-0 in Game 7 on the road of that series before rallying to become the third NHL team to win a best-of-seven series after losing the first three games. The Flyers are looking for their first Cup since the Broad Street Bullies won back-to-back in 1974-75. The Blackhawks haven't won a Cup since 1961, when the league had six teams. The Flyers and Blackhawks met once in the regular season, with the Flyers winning at home 3-2.
The Flyers have been a great story for the past month, but the Blackhawks have been a great story all season. Forward Marian Hossa is trying to avoid losing his third consecutive Cup final with three teams. Hossa, his teammates and the long-suffering Windy City hockey fans will get their Cup.
Blackhawks in five