Flyers, Blackhawks Set to Battle for the Stanley Cup
The Flyers and Blackhawks are relative strangers to one another, having played only one regular-season game this, won by the Flyers, 3-2, on March 13. The only time Chicago and Philadelphia met in the playoffs previously was a 1971 Quarterfinals sweep by the Blackhawks.
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So there figures to be a feeling-out process early on in the Final as the clubs experience first hand what will have been dissected in great detail prior to Game 1.
What we know this Final will bring is perhaps the most unlikely goaltending matchup in the history of the Stanley Cup Final as Antti Niemi and Michael Leighton, two names far from the tip of the tongue at the start of the season, will look to continue postseason brilliance.
The 2010 Final also will be a showcase of some of the NHL's top young players with both sides able to offer up quite a contingent of precocious talent, with Chicago boasting Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook and Philadelphia countering with Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Claude Giroux and Braydon Coburn.
Jonathan Toews (7 goals, 19 assists) and Patrick Kane (7-13) are Nos. 1 and 3, respectively, in playoff scoring thus far, but despite those excellent performances, it is the overall balance among the Blackhawks' forwards that has set this team apart.
Patrick Sharp has been just that with 7 goals and 9 assists, and while Marian Hossa (2 goals, 9 assists in 16 games) has been struggling to hit the net, Dustin Byfuglien (8 goals, 2 assists, 16 games, 4 game-winning goals) has been an absolute terror for the opposition, channeling his inner Phil Esposito into a his huge frame.
But wait, there's more. Dave Bollard (5G, 5A), Kris Versteeg (4G, 5A) and Andrew Ladd (2G, 1A) all have played valuable roles for the 'Hawks. Ditto Stanley Cup veteran John Madden (1G in 16 games), whose experience is incalculable to Chicago.
Like Chicago, the Flyers have received balanced scoring from two solid offensive lines and two others that are thriving in a checking, two-way role. Philadelphia has five forwards with at least 10 points -- one less than the Blackhawks. The Flyers have four forwards with at least 5 goals -- again, one less than Chicago. Scott Hartnell and Ville Leino are 2 points and 1 goal, respectively, from evening the score.The top line of captain Mike Richards centering Simon Gagne and Jeff Carter is formidable, though Carter (4-1-5, 6 games) is still finding his way after sitting out 11-straight games with a foot injury. Scoring twice in the series-clinching Game 5 against Montreal was a great sign. Richards is second in postseason points (21) and assists (15). He's also been terrific on the power play with 1 goal and 9 assists, and has recorded an assist on 53 percent of Philadelphia's 17 man-advantage goals. Goal scorers don't come much hotter than Gagne, who has 7 in his last nine games (4 on the power play and 2 game-winners).
Daniel Briere is second on the team in scoring with 18 points and centers the second line with Hartnell and Ville Leino, who would be the top surprise of the playoffs if not for Michael Leighton. Briere's 9 goals are tied for second in the League, and his 4 game-winners are tied for first. Leino arrived in Philly in early February and was a scratch for 14 of 27 games. In the playoffs he's been indispensable with five 2-point performances. Leino leads all rookies with 12 postseason points.
Giroux has stepped up to become a point-a-game playoff performer. He's in the top 10 in points (17), tied for fourth with 8 goals and is second with a plus-10 rating.
Hard-nosed winger Ian Laperriere is a guy nobody wants to play against, and his return from a Round 1 concussion also is an emotional lift for the Flyers. Put Arron Asham, Dan Carcillo and Blair Betts in the same category of peskiness.
What else can you say about Duncan Keith except he is a most worthy Norris Trophy finalist? He has 1 goal and 9 assists in 16 games and as anyone who saw Game 4 against the Sharks knows, Keith is as tough as they come, losing a handful of teeth, but returning to the game.
Brian Campbell is adroit at jumping into the attack and while he has 3 assists in 13 games, he return to the lineup allowed Dustin Byfuglien to return to the forward ranks and added another puck-mover to the defense. Brent Seabrook (3G, 6A in 16 games) is another highly skilled puck-mover and strong all-around player.
Outside of Chicago, Niklas Hjalmarsson was a virtual unknown, but he has been excellent in the playoffs with 1 goal, 4 assists and a plus-6 in 16 games. Veteran Brent Sopel and Jordan Hendry round out Chicago's top six on defense.
Chris Pronger has been remarkable in leading the Flyers back to the Cup Final since 1997. Even at the advanced age of 35 and with nearly 1,300 career games of wear and tear, Pronger is playing a League-leading 28:48 of ice time per game. Thus far he's been one of three players to average better than 4 minutes a game on the power play (4:30) and penalty kill (4:25), along with teammate Kimmo Timonen and Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom. And it's not just that Pronger eats up minutes, but he's scoring too, tied for first in points by a defenseman (14) with San Jose's Dan Boyle. Pronger hasn't scored this many points in a postseason since recording 15 in his Cup-winning year with Anaheim in 2007.
Matt Carle, Pronger's partner, has 10 assists in 17 games while averaging 25:25, and his plus-8 rating is among the League leaders.
Timonen has 8 assists in 17 games, and 5 have come on the power play, were his 5:06 of man-advantage ice time per game is the best among all players still active in the playoffs. Timonen's partner, Coburn, is a plus-7.
The combined 35 points from the Flyers' top four defenders is the best in the NHL.
There is little doubt that Antti Niemi was unknown to the majority of hockey fans until this season. Now, he is a legitimate Conn Smythe Trophy candidate after leading the Blackhawks to the Final with a splendid brand of goaltending.Niemi is 12-4 with a 2.33 goals-against average and .921 save percentage and two shutouts.
The unheralded goaltender Michael Leighton -- until this postseason -- has been a savior since subbing for injured teammate Brian Boucher. Despite not making an appearance until Game 5 against Boston, Leighton is first in the postseason in goals-against average (1.45), save percentage (.948) and shutouts (3). He has stopped 199 of 210 shots faced and has six wins and one loss.
Joel Quenneville, Blackhawks -- This will be Joel Quenneville's first trip to the Final, but he is among the most experienced coaches in the NHL with 12 seasons as an NHL head coach, including seven seasons with the Blues and three with the Avalanche. In all, 10 of his 12 teams have made the playoffs and seven have gone to at least the second round.
Quenneville is one of only three men in the history of the NHL to have played in and coached 800 or more games, Quenneville has notched at least 40 wins in eight of his nine full seasons as a head coach, which includes a career-best 51 victories – and 113 points – in 1999-2000 with St. Louis when the team captured the Presidents' Trophy for the league’s best record. Quenneville was awarded the 2000 Jack Adams Trophy as the league’s top coach.
Peter Laviolette, Flyers -- Peter Laviolette has now guided two teams to the Stanley Cup Final in five years, and he's the eighth mid-season replacement coach in NHL history to reach the Final. Unlike when his 2006 Carolina Hurricanes faced little adversity in winning the title, Laviolette has had to maneuver the Flyers through tons of injuries -- most notably to forwards Gagne and Carter, and goaltender Brian Boucher -- and perhaps the greatest comeback in playoff history. Whether re-working his lines or keeping his media sessions free of revealing details, Laviolette has been on top of his game in outdueling Jacques Lemaire, Claude Julien and Jacques Martin.
Important safety tip: Do not take penalties at home against the Blackhawks. Chicago is clicking at a 31.2 success rate away from home (10 goals on 32 chances) and is 22.6 for the playoffs, hitting on 14 goals in 62 opportunities.
The Blackhawks are third in the postseason killing penalties, denying the opposition 86.6 percent of the time. The Blackhawks also have scored 3 shorthanded goals in 16 games.
In the postseason, the Flyers have the second-ranked penalty killing unit at 87 percent (67-for-77), and only Montreal (84) has been shorthanded more times. They have been slightly better at home (87.5, 35-for-40) than on the road (86.5, 32-for-37). Philadelphia leads the NHL in power-play goals with 17 and is eighth with a success rate of 20.7 (82 chances). They have scored 9 man-advantage goals on the road (20.9 percent, 43 chances) and 8 at home (20.5 percent, 39 chances).
Dustin Byfuglien, Chicago -- "Big Buff" has been a one-man wrecking crew for the Blackhawks so far, posting up in front of the opposition to screen the goalie and just make life miserable for anyone in a different jersey. Going against Chris Pronger will be one of the most entertaining battles of the Final and one that could determine how the series plays out.
Chris Pronger, Philadelphia -- Chicago has Marian Hossa (3 straight trips to Final), but the Flyers have the hulking defender and dressing room leader who is making his third Stanley Cup Final appearance since 2006 and actually won the Cup (2007, Anaheim), something Hossa can't say. Pronger (6-6, 220) makes all the difference in the world because he can play in any situation and dominate (except for one poor performance in Game 3 against Montreal). He's a lock to lead all skaters in ice time and play against Chicago's top line, specifically to neutralize red hot power forward Dustin Byfuglien (6-4, 257), who enters the Cup with a five-game goal streak.
Blackhawks will win if ... They keep on keeping on. The Blackhawks are a finely tuned machine at present with all elements clicking from Niemi in goal to a strong defense and deep and productive forward corps.
Flyers will win if ... Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Byfuglien don't score enough for Chicago. That trio should see plenty of Pronger, Laperriere, Betts and Darroll Powe, especially when the Flyers have the last change in home games. If Philadelphia can put pressure on Chicago's secondary scorers -- Patrick Sharp and Dave Bolland have been ok, Marian Hossa not so much -- to carry the load, the Blackhawks might not enjoy too many leads.