When the 2009-10 NHL season started, I can say with fair confidence, 1 of the teams in the finals was NOT on my radar. The Philadelphia Flyers.
While the Chicago Blackhawks were my strongest consideration for my Western Conference finalist, the Flyers to me were nothing more than a playoff spot filler. To me, the East ran thru Washington or Pittsburgh. With outside chances to Buffalo, Montreal and Boston.
That is all you really need to know of the Philadelphia Flyers right there. They have proven a lot of people wrong. Including me... 4 times now this season.
They made the playoffs on the last chance they could this season. They got in with a shootout win to eek into a playoff spot that I boldly told my friends in March there was no way they could win. Down the stretch this team, which seemed destined to a solid top 5 or 6 placing in the conference just weeks earlier, had plummeted & on some days, was out of the playoff race as teams like the New York rangers & Atlanta Thrashers kept poking their head into the final playoff spot momentarily. Yet, in the final week they fought back & dragged themselves to a do or die, winner take all affair with the NY Rangers on the very final day of the season. To the loser, a long frustrating off season of what could have been. To the winners, a date with the Atlantic division champs, New Jersey Devils. Hardly a great reward for such a triumph. The Flyers & Rangers played to a shootout. With Claude Giroux scoring on the 3rd shooter for Philly, it was up to unlikely hero Brian Boucher, an after thought to most analysts this season, and probably even that week, to make 1 more save. With the Rangers picking top end scorer Olli Jokinen, the challenge was going to be big. But Boucher did it & the Flyers would be moving on to the playoffs, proving me wrong once.
Playing against the Devils, after narrowly making it. I was confident the Flyers season would end here. They had to have emptied their gas tanks to get here. But the Flyers found a way to not just get by the Devils, they handled them quickly in 5 games. If anything, it seemed Martin Brodeur, and the Devils forwards were the ones who had run the gas tank to empty in the regular season. For a 2nd time, the Flyers proved me wrong.
In round 2 they got the Boston Bruins, a team I was less sure of, but still liked their chances over the Flyers. Where the Devils seemed to be struggling down the stretch behind the suddenly average goaltending of Martin Brodeur, the Bruins had young stud Tuukka Rask in net & he wasnt faltering. The Bruins rushed out to a 3 games ot 0 lead over the hapless Flyers. This series was over. So much for the cinderella Flyers. Then it happened. Something changed. The Flyers came into game 4 with a "we have nothing to lose" attitude, and guess what?? they didnt lose. With an OT winner from Simon Gagne, the Philadelphia Flyers moved from clinically dead, to on life support. But it was impossible to believe they were going to become the 3rd team in NHL history to return from a 3-0 deficit, right??? Game 5, they won as well, 4-0. In that game, their band aid solution starting goalie Brian Boucher (who took the role as #1 when Ray Emery went down 1/2 way thru the yr with a season ending injury) himself went down with an injury, meaning barely known Michael Leighton was thrust into the spotlight. From there on, it was the Leighton show. He would backstop games 6 &7 wins & the Philadelphia Flyers would make the Eastern Conference finals somehow. Proving me wrong for a 3rd time.
In the Eastern Conference Finals they faced another cinderella team, the Montreal Canadiens. While Michael Leighton was becoming a notable name in Philly, and really in tune hockey experts, the Habs had their own goalie of the moment backstopping them. Slovakian Olympian, Jaroslav Halak. With championship knowledge in his resume (he was on the Hamilton Bulldogs Calder Cup championship team a few yrs ago) & already having carried 1 underdog team to near greatness this year (Slovakia finished 4th at the Olympics, despite being on few if anyones radar going into the tourney, as a medal contender)Although the Flyers came in as the statistical "favorites", most people seemed to give Montreal the edge, myself included. With the exception of the game 3 in the series, the first game in Montreal, the Habs seemed dead in the water. Their gas tanks emptied like the Devils in round 1 & the Bruins in the last 1/2 of their series, and the Flyers just ran them over, finishing the series off in 5 games. Proving me wrong for a 4th time.
So here we find the Philadelphia Flyers, a team who driving down the stretch of the playoffs race lost 9 of 11 games thru March & early April, in the Stanley Cup Finals. More amazing is, with the exception of the 3-0 Bruins series lead, this team has won 12 of 14 games to get to this spot. Now, the Flyers face a team from the West that was expected to possibly be in this position, the Chicago Blackhawks.
Once again, goaltending for the visitor is expected to be strong. The Devils had Brodeur, the Bruins had Rask, the Habs had Halak. All have fallen to this sudden power house team. Will the Haws Antti Niemi falter too?
The Flyers are getting great performances from their top guys. The team is offensively being lead by Mike Richards, Daniel Briere, Claude Giroux, Simon Gagne & Chris Pronger. The guys you expect to lead, are. With the addition of Jeff Carter, this looks more like a cup contending team than the 1 that limped into the post-season without Gagne or Carter. The Flyers have been getting good support offense from defenders Kimmo Timonen & Matt Carle, as well as forwards Ville Leino and Scott Hartnell. Tough as nails checking specialist Ian Laperriere is back in the fold, giving other hard nosed players like Dan Carcillo and Arron Asham some back up on the defensive side of the forward unit.
This team really should be proud of everything they accomplish, wiin or lose. This is a team who realistically wasnt on many experts radar for a Cup berth, and certainly werent expected after losing notable names like Gagne, Carter, Emery & Boucher thru the journey. Yet somehow, they are here. They SHOULD be proud, regardless of the outcome. But you look down that roster, with guys like Pronger, Laperriere, Richards and Carter & you realize that this team is full of guys who wont be happy losing. This team will fight right to the bitter end, even if they are down 10-0 in game 4 of a series they are already down 3 games to 0 in. Winning the Prince of Wales Trophy isnt even a consolation prize to this group. With the higly competitive league the NHL has created, where teams rarely have chances to develop a dynasty, this very well could be the 1 and only shot for many of these guys. They wont want to waste it.
I dont think the Philadelphia Flyers will win. I think Chicago is the better team and they want this just as badly. I am picking Chicago in 6 games. But if the Flyers do win, after all they have done this year in proving me wrong...it shouldnt shock anyone, most of all...me.
At 5th in the IIHF rankings the U.S. team the 2010 Olympics will see, is coming in with hopes of a medal. The hopes for any medal contention will fall solely on the shoulders of Ryan Miller. Tim Thomas might be the Vezina trophy winner, but Miller is far & away the better goalie. The battle for number 3 is one that I wont be surprised if I get wrong. Its in my opinion a 4 horse race. Early in the season Craig Anderson looked like a lock. Lately Jonathan Quick seems like the odds on favorite, but few have considered Ty Conklin & Jim Howard, both who have had exceptional seasons as well. Theres even the small (although highly unlikely) potential of Robert Esche, one of the top goalies in the KHL this season being on their radar, but I think he will be snubbed for a North American playing goalie.
The team on defense is young, but not as young as it would have been had Tyler Myers been eligible to play for it. The 18 yr old stud defenseman, American born, opted to play for Canada in the junior championships & thus is not eligible for the U.S. team.
Forwards are a good mix of young, old, speedy & skilled. With young studs like Parise, Stastny, Kane & Ryan, they wont have to worry about scoring. Guys like Kesler, Rolston & Langebrunner will be able to play solid defensive games and contribute a bit offensively.
Overall, the U.S. squad is one of the more rounded ones they have had in awhile. Chances for a medal are decent.
Ryan Miller- BUFFALO SABRES (NHL) The undisputed best goalie in the U.S. right now. Leads in GGA, SPCT, SO & 1 win out of 1st in wins. He is the starter without hesitation.
Tim Thomas- BOSTON BRUINS (NHL) Solely based on his performance last season Tim will be here as the back up. Realistically, hes had an average season & there is likely more deserving players, but a Norris trophy winner last year gets him a partial pass on an average season so far.
Jim Howard- DETROIT RED WINGS (NHL) I am picking him solely because in the last few weeks hes had amazing stats, hes been a starter now & hes managed to climb from the bottom of my prospective goalies list to almost the top in a matter of weeks. Best of the bunch over the past while & has been the backbone of a resurgence of the Wings lately. This is by far a lock though, especially if Burkie had his choices made prior to the start of December for his goalies.
Erik Johnson- ST LOUIS BLUES (NHL) The probable 1st unit PP QB for USA, Erik will be a probable top pair starter.
Alex Goligoski- PITTSBURGH PENGUINS (NHL) Although hes cooled off a touch this last couple weeks, he is still having a sound defensive game as well & clearly has an offensive flair as well which makes his capable in all situations.
Matt Carle- PHILADELPHIA FLYERS (NHL) Maybe its Chris Pronger who has had something to do with it, but Matt Carle is set to possibly have the best season of his short career already.
Ryan Suter- NASHVILLE PREDATORS (NHL) The Preds are climbing the standings right now & you can put a large chunk of that on their defense core, including Suter. With 7 pts & a +8 in their last 8 games, he has cemented what was already a probable spot before then.
Ryan Whitney- ANAHEIM DUCKS (NHL) His strong offensive game will be his ticket onto the team. If they dont feel the need for his offense, he might not be here though. Defensively there are better options.
Andy Greene- NEW JERSEY DEVILS (NHL) Who had Andy Greene even on their short list at the start of the year? Probably no one, including me. But injuries in NJ (including Paul Martin who might replace him depending on his return status) has seen Greenes stock rise dramatically & right now, I would have to question leaving a dman with 3 GWG & 4 PP goals off your roster. That +8 rating likely doesnt hurt his chances either.
Brian Rafalski- DETROIT RED WINGS (NHL) One of the most experienced dmen the U.S. has. Brian will be here not just on his past championship & major international tourney experience, but on the fact hes had a decent year again at both ends of the ice.
Zach Parise- NEW JERSEY DEVILS (NHL) The top goals, assists & points scorer for the U.S. last year, Zach has returned to that same form this year, leading the American offensive charge again. He will be expected to carry the load offensively.
Paul Stastny- COLORADO AVALANCHE (NHL) The Avs are fighting for a division title early in this season, and much of that is because of Paul Stastny & his offensive contributions. USA will hope for the same contributions in Vancouver.
Patrick Kane- CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS (NHL) His off season issues have not seemed to have damaged his game much. Patrick is again having a solid year offensively. A pt per game pace & a likely top line spot & lots of PP time will make him dangerous.
Ryan Kesler- VANCOUVER CANUCKS (NHL) A Selke trophy finalist last season, Ryan has perhaps even improved on that performance this season. Offensively he has picked his game up a notch, maybe even two.
Jamie Langenbrunner- NEW JERSEY DEVILS (NHL) Has lots of offensive talent, but is also an exceptional defensive minded forward who will probably get lots of time in all situations.
Ryan Malone- TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING (NHL) A literal resurgence for Ryan Malone this year has placed him on this team. He is struggling a bit lately, but his early season efforts have him safely on the team. The American staff is just hoping he gets that touch back by February.
Bobby Ryan- ANAHEIM DUCKS (NHL) If this tourney was a year later I think he would be on the top line. Since its now however, he'll do quite fine as their 2nd unit winger.
Phil Kessel- TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS (NHL) The Leafs have come on strong since Kessel returned from an injury. His pt per game avg has him on the team, even if the National teams GM didnt have a club team connection to him in Toronto.
Tim Connolly- BUFFALO SABRES (NHL) Will fill a 3rd line scoring role. Could be moved to a 2nd line spot if others falter.
RJ Umberger- COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS (NHL) Long as he can get along with sure thing Ryan Kesler, RJ Umberger should do well in a checking role & still bring offensive skills to the position.
Dustin Brown- LOS ANGELES KINGS (NHL) A good offensive player, it will be a defensive role the American staff will probably put on him here though. Expect him as a 3rd liner.
Jason Blake- TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS (NHL) Playing for the National teams GM will get him on the team. Brian Burke will put Jason here for no other reason but to hopefully give his player a boost of confidence for the rest of the NHL season. He has the stats to justify it as well.
Brian Rolston- NEW JERSEY DEVILS (NHL) my first roster at the end of Oct, he wasnt even on my "outside chance" list. Mid Nov list still not on it. Finally at the end of Nov I placed him at the bottom of my "outside chance" list. If I am wrong about him being here I wont be shocked. His surge has been only recently & maybe its too late to get recognized. But his stats & experience make me consider him an option & if he keeps it up thru till decision day, maybe Burkie scratches out whoever he has here & puts him in instead.
maybe- Craig Anderson, Jonathan Quick, Brooks Orpik, Zach Bogosian, Jack Johnson, Keith Tkachuk, Dustin Byfuglien, David Booth, Jason Pominville, Kyle Okposo.
Canadagraphs Hockey Blogs
From time to time I have something to say on hockey. Whether its the Vancouver Canucks, NHL in general, Womens Hockey or International Hockey...if I have something to post, it will be in here.