Over the last eight months, the field has slowly been widdled from 30 to 16 to 8 to 4 and now to the final two teams fighting for Lord Stanley’s Cup. Heading into the season, the Chicago Blackhawks were a media favourite to make it to the big dance. The Philadelphia Flyers were considered a dark horse in October and a longshot after making it into the post-season on the final day of the regular season. Now, one of these teams is four wins away from lifting the Stanley Cup.
#2 Chicago Blackhawks vs. #7 Philadelphia Flyers
At the beginning of the season, this wouldn’t have been such a far-fetched Stanley Cup Final. Both team had lots of young talent that could take them far if they didn’t buckle under the pressure. The only question mark was goaltending but that could be shored up at the trade deadline if need be.
Fast forward to this week. The Blackhawks did exactly as expected with the exception of upgrading their goaltending situation. The Flyers had a roundabout way of making the Finals. They had to beat the Rangers on the final day of the regular season to make the playoffs and even then, they were only the 18th best team of the first 82 games. They may have underachieved but Philly pulled it together at the right time to have a shot at the Cup.
Goaltending is what most would consider the weak points of these two teams but the two best goalies (statistically) during the post-season have been Philly’s Michael Leighton and Chicago’s Antti Niemi. They’re not two goalies that you would ever expect to lead a Stanley Cup charge but that’s exactly what they’ve done. Leighton was lights out against Montreal while Niemi has been more that adequate to dispatch his three series worth of opposition. All things considered, the matchup between the pipes is fairly even.
Defensively, you’ve got two fairly different philosophies. The Blackhawks tend to be more of a puck-moving group of blueliners. When you think of Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Brian Campbell, you think of guys who are better known for being able to move the puck rather than stop it. Okay, that might be unfair to Seabrook more than the other two but they’re all more offensive than defensive in their play. As for the Flyers, you’ve got more of a defensive focus on the blueline. Sure, Pronger and Timonen are better shooters than defenders but they can play a two-way game. The other thing about the Flyers is that they will hit you hard, then hit you again when you try to get up. Looking at it from a strictly defensive standpoint, you have to include Mike Richards and Jeff Carter in the discussion. While Toews is a pretty good defensive player in his own right, few can hold a candle to Richards. Carter has his moments of brilliance as well and shouldn’t be discounted as a defensive difference maker. As far as defensive prowess goes, give the edge to Philadelphia.
On the offensive end of the ice, I don’t think this is much of a contest. The Flyers have a few scorers in Richards, Carter, and Briere with increasing contributions from Claude Giroux. When you look at the guys in the red jerseys, it’s looking bleak for the Bullies. The Blackhawks have Toews, Kane, and Byfuglien as the offensive leaders with the likes of Hossa, Bolland, Sharp and Versteeg as secondary scoring. Toss in the offensive contributions of Keith, Seabrook and Campbell and Chicago can easily out gun Philly.
So my breakdown has rendered it 1-1-1 for each team. I don’t think the series will be that close, however. I think that the offence will carry the day for Chicago. If you can assault Leighton with a barrage of rubber, it won’t matter how good the defence and goaltending is. At some point Philly will break under the Blackhawk onslaught. I’ll take Chicago to lift Lord Stanley’s Cup.
Conn Smythe: Jonathan Toews – When the playoffs started, did anyone think that the opposition would be saying “Don’t Toews me, bro”? Patrick “20 Cent” Kane was supposed to be the offensive firepower. Instead, it’s Toews that’s leading the league in assists and points through the conference rounds of the playoffs. It’s actually not really close. In 16 games, the Blackhawks captain has racked up 26 points which is five more than Mike Richards who had an extra game to get 21. While the solid play of Antti Niemi has been the much needed revelation that the Hawks needed to get this far, Toews has been the engine that has powered Chicago through the post-season. Granted, goaltending is what failed them against the Wings in last year’s conference finals. However, with Toews playing the way he is, it would matter if it was Niemi or Chris Huet between the pipes.
Man to Watch: Dustin Byfuglien – Who would have pegged Big Buff to be the hero for Chicago? A man who bounces between defence and forward and better known as a pest is quickly becoming a favourite of the Chicago faithful. The man does seem quintessential Chicago, though. He’ll mouth off and beat you down but he has no problem getting the job done. He seems like the polar opposite of his linemate Patrick Kane. Kane does most of his talking with his skates and stick (except with cabbies) while Buff talks with his mouth… and his shoulders and fists. The leading goal scorer for the Hawks will be hard for a physical Flyers team to contain, especially considering the rest of the firepower on that team. Considering that he came from nowhere to be the hero, it wouldn’t be shocking to see Byfuglien get some consideration for the Conn Smythe. For now, all eyes in orange uniforms should be on Big Buff.
X-Factor: Marian Hossa – For the third straight year, the acquisition of Marian Hossa made a big splash. In 2008, Hossa was supposed to push the Penguins over the top. In 2009, Hossa was supposed to guarantee a Red Wings repeat. In 2010, Hossa’s signing showed that the Blackhawks believed they were ready to contend for the Cup. The signing also showed the loopholes in the current CBA. So while Chicago is set for this year, their current deal with Hossa could impact the long-term competitiveness as they’ll be spending much more against the cap than actually paying Hossa. Big Mo has been fairly quiet during the playoffs. The spotlight has been stolen by guys like Byfuglien and Dave Bolland. Hossa seems to have been relegated to the role of secondary scoring. However, considering how hot Michael Leighton has been, the Hawks may just need him. And most importantly is the Hossa Curse. He’s lost in the finals twice in a row with different teams. If Chicago loses, remember that the curse did them in.
Conn Smythe: Mike Richards – The man wears the C for a reason. Richards is a quiet player at both ends of the ice but he dictates the play whether the opposition realizes it or not. And when he is making the highlight reels, he plays at an elite level. Look at game five against Montreal. He was battling all over the ice and thoroughly dominated play. The rest of the time, he sort of reminds me of Nick Lidstrom. He blends into the scenery but is a powerful enough presence that you know he is controlling the flow of the game. It’s his defensive skills that will be especially important in this game. I would rate him as one of the top three defensive forwards in the game right now (along with Zetterberg and Datsyuk). Richards isn’t prone to the same offensive explosiveness as Toews but he is a steady point-per-game player. He’s just not as likely to be an offensive game breaker as Toews, Kane, Carter or Briere. That all being said, if the Flyers win the Cup, it has to be Richards will have some extra hardware to hoist before the Cup.
Man to Watch: Michael Leighton – Seven different men have been between the pipes for the Flyers this season. None have had the impact of Mike Leighton. Sure, Ray Emery may have generated more headlines in the hockey media. And sure, Brian Boucher may have gotten them into the playoffs. But it’s been Leighton that’s been lights out for Philly since he called in to replace Boucher in the second round. He’s pitched three shutouts in eight playoff games to lead the league. He also tops all goalies in the post-season in save percentage and goals against average. Now, he’s not going to keep his pretty 0.948 SV% or 1.49 GAA against Chicago but if he can keep his save percentage in the neighbourhood and keep his GAA within a point of what he has now, he gives Philly more than a fighting chance. Given how heavily favoured the Hawks are, it’ll be up to Leighton to steal the series for the Broad Street Bullies.
X-Factor: Jeff Carter – Well, he’s had an interesting season. He’s been rumoured to end up in Toronto on and off for the last couple of years. He’s suffered a few injuries this year which kept him out for most of the playoffs. He was rumoured to have slept with Scott Hartnall’s wife which caused a massive schism in the locker room. Somehow, he and the Flyers overcame it all to get here. Carter plays a solid two-way game, though nowhere near Richards’ and Toews’ levels. If he’s fully recovered from injury, though, he should be enough of a match to deal with the Hawks secondary scoring. It will be defence and goaltending that will have to win the series for the Flyers and Carter will have to play a big part of it.
Prediction: Chicago in 6
Conn Smythe Winner: Jonathan Toews