Thursday, May 27, 2010

Into The Crystal Ball: 2010 Stanley Cup Final Edition

Chicago Blackhawks v Philadelphia Flyers

It’s pretty safe to say that, before the playoffs began, this wasn’t the Final anyone was expecting.

While the Chicago Blackhawks were viewed amongst the Cup favourites and thus their appearance here isn’t all that surprising, the Philadelphia Flyers being here is a shocker. Here was a team that had underperformed all season, getting into the playoffs on the final day where they barely escaped Madison Square Garden with a shootout win (one helped by the fact the New York Rangers inexplicably didn’t go with Marian Gaborik in the shootout) and reduced to journeyman goaltender Brian Boucher as their starting goaltender, with regular starter Ray Emery out and regular backup Michael Leighton out as well. Then, as the playoffs went on, the Flyers found themselves in a 0-3 hole against the Boston Bruins in the second round, barely needing overtime to get out of Game 4 alive. To make matters worse, Boucher would go down in Game 5 with the Flyers holding to a lead, though, fortunately for them Leighton had just came back that night to be the backup. Philadelphia somehow won to force Game 7, only to fall behind 3-0 early in that game. That could have been the straw that broke the Flyers’ back, but instead Philadelphia scored four unanswered goals- including one on a power play induced by a too-many-men-on-the-ice penalty- and to improbably take Game 7 and the series. Philadelphia rode that momentum to a five-game victory over the Montreal Canadiens in the Conference Final to set up their first Finals appearance since 1997.

“Unimaginable” doesn’t begin to cover the extraordinariness of the Flyers’ run. “Inconceivable” is more like it.

Yet, here they are, four wins away from their first Stanley Cup since 1975. It’s stories like these that draw me to the sport I love.

Now, for their part, the Blackhawks have a chance to write a little history of their own. Chicago hasn’t won the Stanley Cup since 1961- a full six years before the Flyers were even born- and faced well over a decade of futility and irrelevance under the contemptuous ownership of “Dollar” Bill Wirtz. Before Chicago made the playoffs in 2009, the Blackhawks endured a period of ten seasons from 1997-98 to 2007-08 where they made just one playoff appearance and won only a single game (2002 against the St. Louis Blues), a stretch the team hadn’t been on since the early days of the Original Six. During this period, Wirtz alienated fans and ‘Hawks legends alike, forbidding the broadcast of Blackhawk home games and refusing to spend any money to retain talent or pursue free agents. It was a period of hopelessness that would be unbecoming for any franchise, let alone one with the proud history of the Blackhawks, leaving many wondering in the Windy City blew away the team’s allure and ability to win. Then- for the lack of a better explanation- Bill Wirtz died, his son, Rocky, took over, embraced the fans and the legends, ended the blackout, opened the chequebook and suddenly the franchise is alive again. So here too, “inconceivable” is an apt description of the Blackhawks’ run given their medium-term history, because no one would have believed this team would have gotten here in the depths of their despair just a few short seasons ago.

So, with as many as seven or as little as (but hopefully not, unless you’re a fan of either team) four games to go in the NHL season, it’s time to break out the Crystal Ball™ and see which Cinderella gets a chance to dance at the ball.

(W2) Chicago Blackhawks vs. (E7) Philadelphia Flyers

How They Got Here:

Chicago:

Defeated #7 Nashville Predators 4-2

Defeated #3 Vancouver Canucks 4-2

Defeated #1 San Jose 4-0

Philadelphia

Defeated #2 New Jersey Devils 4-1

Defeated #6 Boston Bruins 4-3

Defeated #8 Montreal Canadiens 4-1

Key Players:

Chicago:

SKATERS

GP

G

A

PTS

+/-

PIM

ATOI

Jonathan Toews, C

16

7

19

26

4

4

20:49

Patrick Kane, RW

16

7

13

20

2

4

19:10

Patrick Sharp, C

16

7

9

16

3

12

17:53

Marian Hossa, RW

16

2

9

11

8

21

17:56

Duncan Keith, D

16

1

9

10

3

10

27:52

Dustin Byfuglien, RW

16

8

2

10

-3

16

15:38

Dave Bolland, C

16

5

5

10

3

26

18:29

Brent Seabrook, D

16

3

6

9

8

8

23:49

Kris Versteeg, RW

16

4

5

9

1

8

16:42

GOALTENDERS

GP

W

L

GAA

SV

SV%

SO

Antti Niemi

16

12

4

2.33

430

0.921

2

Philadelphia

SKATERS

GP

G

A

PTS

+/-

PIM

ATOI

Mike Richards, C

17

6

15

21

6

14

21:45

Danny Briere, C

17

9

9

18

4

16

19:17

Claude Giroux, RW

17

8

9

17

10

4

18:56

Chris Pronger, D

17

4

10

14

2

18

28:48

Ville Leino, LW

13

4

8

12

4

6

15:43

Simon Gagne, LW

13

7

3

10

6

0

17:49

Matt Carle, D

17

0

10

10

8

8

25:26

Scott Hartnell, LW

17

3

5

8

0

15

15:37

Kimmo Timonen, D

17

0

8

8

6

18

26:35

GOALTENDERS

GP

W

L

GAA

SV

SV%

SO

Michael Leighton

8

6

1

1.45

199

0.948

3

Brian Boucher

10

6

4

2.33

249

0.915

1



THE MODUS OPERANDI

Chicago: The Blackhawks are here due in no small part to their superior team speed. You’re all aware of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, but others such as Dave Bolland, Patrick Sharp and Kris Versteeg buzz with such a frequency that opponents can’t handle them regardless of where they are on the ice, because they’re always creating fearsome scoring chances or snuffing out your own with relentless pressure. The speed is so alluring that it draws you into that game, and takes you away from your own, meaning you have to be able to skate with them to have any chance of winning. Furthermore, the presence of elite puck mover Duncan Keith keeps the tempo up all game long, so don’t expect any relief; and don’t expect to get under their skin because they have the likes of Dustin Byfuglien and Ben Eager who are more than capable of throwing their weight around too. The power play also clicks with ease due to the traffic Byfuglien’s size creates, as well as Byfuglien’s ability to shoot well in tight. Chicago is still a little small along the blueline, so, naturally, the Blackhawks look to avoid getting stuck along the boards and fortunately they’re mobile enough to stay away from that game. Finally, Antti Niemi seems to have resolved all the questions surrounding his goaltending ability, being able to bounce back from difficult games and- while he hasn’t been spectacular- be at least good enough so that any lead Chicago takes will hold up, which is the least he can do.

Philadelphia: You can’t start any discussion about the Flyers without bringing up Mike Richards. Is there a better player in the NHL right now? The answer is an emphatic “no”. Quite simply he does it all- he hits, he scores, he dangles, he passes, he defends and he leads at such a high level that no one could dare keep up. He’s already drawing comparisons with Flyer legend Bobby Clarke- and with good reason- and if he ever lets his hair grow into curls and loses his front teeth, there really would be no differentiating the two (aside from their age, of course). Philadelphia is glad to have him, and they’re also glad he doesn’t *have* to shoulder the load. Right behind Richards on the scoresheet are the rejuvenated Daniel Briere (finally living up to his lofty contract), the returning Jeff Carter, the blossoming Claude Giroux, Simon Gagne and Villie Leino, the latter coming out of nowhere after the Detroit Red Wings essentially traded him for a bag of pucks (sorry Ole-Kristian Tollefson, but perhaps if you weren’t a Grand Rapids Griffin right now I might not have gone there). On the backend, the Flyers can boast an adroit group with twin anchors Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen (a big reason why the Flyers’ defence ranks as the best in these playoffs), as well as capable supporters in Matt Carle and Braydon Coburn. Let’s also not forget the yeoman work that the likes of Scott Hartnell and Ian Laperierre bring to this group, bringing a tenacity to this group that allows them to get the job done no matter how daunting. Simply put, this is still the Flyer team you’ve grown to love (or hate, depending on your persuasion)- they’ll hit, they’ll fight and get under your skin, but don’t think they don’t have speed or ability, because they’ve got plenty of that as well. Then there’s Leighton, the journeyman goaltender who provides hope to the Adam Berkhoels of the world that with just enough perseverance anything can happen; and what a rock Leighton has been, posting a microscopic 1.45 GAA in these playoffs. If you want to talk about “rejuvenated”, you have your model right here.

HOW THEY WIN

Chicago: Their speed killed during the playoffs and it’ll have to kill again. Although the Flyers are more than capable of playing that game as well, the Blackhawks need to be able to dictate the pace of the game if they are to succeed in this series. That means creating quick offence off the rush and holding on to the puck, so the faceoff prowess of Toews needs to continue. Also key to their success would be the re-emergence of Marian Hossa, whose size would be instrumental in taking on the Flyer big men (especially Pronger) and creating space for the smaller forwards; but so far Hossa (who just has two goals) hasn’t been the factor he needs to be. Byfuglien also needs to win the battle in front of the net for the power play to be effective, which won’t be easy with Pronger patrolling the area. Niemi will need to be stellar, because this Flyer team will create a lot of chances so he’ll have to work harder than he had before at preserving whatever lead the Blackhawks get (if Chicago is capable of getting one, that is). Above all else, though, is that Chicago needs to ensure they can mitigate the pounding their defencemen will receive from the Flyer forecheckers. This means that Brian Campbell has to emerge as a force for the first time in his career to provide relief for Keith in the puck moving department, while Brent Sopel and Niklas Hjalmarsson have to be effective defensively so Brent Seabrook doesn’t get overused. If the Blackhawks are forced to use Byfuglien on the backend that will drastically reduce the size of the Chicago front end, and play right into the Flyers’ hands, so it is absolutely vital that the current Blackhawk defenders do their jobs.

Philadelphia: Pound the Blackhawks. Chicago has been fortunate that they have yet to face a forward corps as physical and as tenacious as the Flyer group (Joe Thornton and the Sharks could take notes here), so the Flyers will need to work them and tire them out, since it will drastically slow down Chicago’s ability to play the speed game they want to play. The Flyers have the speed and skill to keep up with the Blackhawks, so using their clear size advantage is instrumental in shifting the series in their favour. Pronger will also need to win the battle in front of the net against Byfuglien, with Gagne and Carter needed to win the net battle on their end of the ice. Leighton also needs to be stellar because the Blackhawk forwards will barrage him with shots so he’ll need to be on top of his game for the Flyers to have any chance. Lastly, the Flyers need to continue being effective without the puck, meaning the yeoman work of Laperierre and the emerging Darroll Powe has to continue. Chicago’s game is puck possession, so playing with the proper positioning is the best way to counter it.

WHO WILL WIN

There are compelling cases to be made for both teams, but if I had to choose, the stronger one is Philadelphia’s. Size always triumphs over skill in the playoffs (see Anaheim Ducks, 2007 Stanley Cup Champions) and you don’t get the mixture of speed, size and skill that the Flyers possess very often. Chicago is simply too small on the backend to be effective against a Flyer forecheck that will pound them for the first time this playoffs, and the size at the top end of the forward corps is lacking. Sure, the Blackhawks have Eager, Adam Burish, Andrew Ladd and Troy Brouwer to mix things up, but that only goes so far when you have Richards, Carter and Gagne to contend with, and those guys can score whereas the Chicago bunch cannot. The Blackhawks won’t be swept like they were in 1992, but they’ll have to wait a little bit longer to parade the Great Mug down Michigan Avenue.

Flyers 4, Blackhawks 2

-DG


Comments:

Post a Comment

On comments:

Under no circumstances will flaming, trolling or any other kind of derogatory or malicious remark be tolerated, to myself or other posters. I expect all discussions to be civil and respectful, and any comment which does not adhere to that will be deleted. Disagreements- with myself or other posters- are fine, as long as you are respectful and provide a reason for your disagreement.

Furthermore, advertisements are not permitted within a comment. Any advertisement found in a comment will be deleted and reported as spam. Do not also ask me in a comment if you can advertise as I will also treat this as spam.

Finally, please comment under a name (the option exists above "Anonymous"). Anonymous posts will not be accepted.

Thank you.

-DG

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]



Links to this post:

Create a Link



<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Subscribe to Posts [Atom]