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.
Its almost June & only 2 teams are left playing in the NHL. The Philadephia Flyers, a team few people expected to still be playing, and the Chicago Blackhawks, a team many people, myself included expected to possibly be playing still.
When this season started, the Chicago Blackhawks (even though I didnt like admitting it, still fresh off the sting of them beating us in the playoffs the year before, I was still a bit bitter) were my team to win the West....of course, it wasnt a resound vote of confidence. I did have my fingers dipped in several bowls, including the Calgary Flames (before they tried to build a team out of 3rd & 4th liners).
It came as little shock to anyone that the Blackhawks finished tops in their division & 2nd in the Western Conference this year. A lot of people expected the Hawks to take over the reigns from the long time Central Division champs, Detroit Red Wings.
I had the team getting this far possibly...I just didnt know who the goalie was that was going to get them here. Upstart Finnish goalie Antti Niemi has stolen the job from the greatest goaltender ever from France, Cristobal Huet. That is saying a lot for Niemi. Afterall Huet stole the job from superstar Nikolai Khabibulin & subsequently was responsible for the former Cup champion being run out of town. Now Niemi might do the same to Huet.
Round 1, the Hawks had a date with the Nashville Predators. I never took the Preds serious all year long, and in the playoffs that didnt change. I expected the Hawks to dispense of them quickly, so you could imagine my surprise when the boys from the Windy City were down 2 games to 1 from a place that thinks when someone says "puck" it must be someone with a speech impediment swearing at you. But eventually calm was restored & the Chicago Blackhawks got out of round 1 4 games to 2.
For their next match up, they were going to try & recreate history. The Vancouver Canucks, the Hawks 2nd round opponents of a year ago were back looking for revenge. With an Art Ross winner & improved scoring all around, the Canucks were seemingly silenced offensively by the defensive pairings of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook as well as Nik Hjarmalsson and Brian Campbell. The offense that was so explosive for the Canucks seemed missing, while the Hawks wasnt. Jonathan Toews stepped up in the series & started an offensive streak that is still in tact at this point. Dustin Byfuglien & Dave Bolland seemed too much for the thin & undermanned Canucks defense to handle. While offensively Patrick Sharp & Pat Kane did what was expected of them. The rematch ended the same way, on the same date a year later. Chicago Blackhawks win 4 games to 2
While the Hawks were running thru the west, another team San Jose Sharks were doing something most people didnt expect...they were also winning. With wins over the Colorado Avalanche after being down in the series, and a more shocking win over the surging Detroit Red Wings, who were starting to look like the Wings of old in the weeks prior, the Sharks seemed a formidable opponent for the strong Hawks team. The Sharks, known for being a great regular season squad, but always faltering come playoffs saved their predictable collapse for the Conference finals this time. The #1 team in the West in the regular season was beat down by the bigger and faster Hawks squad. While playoff choke artist poster child Joe Thornton was scrounging up 1 measely point in the 4 games, Jonathan Toews was busy getting 6 pts in that same time span, including game 2 GWG & assisting on 2 other GWGs. All the same suspects from the Canucks series were responsible in gutting the Sharks. Byfuglien, Bolland, Kane, Sharp, Seabrook & Keith did much of the damage. With the exception of Patrick Marleau & Dan Boyle, the Sharks were dead in the water from the word go of this series. The Chicago Blackhawks beat the top seeded Western team 4 games to 0 in the Western Conference Finals and took home the Campbell Bowl. With a sweep in the books, the Hawks started to set their sights on their ultimate goal...the Stanley Cup.
The Chicago Blackhawks are where many thought they would be. In the Stanley Cup Finals. Maybe just not against who lost thought they would be there against. They will face a foe that was 24 points behind them in the standings. A team that would have finished 11th in their conference. But the Hawks wont take them for granted I suspect. Afterall, the only meeting these two teams had this year, the Hawks lost, and not all that long ago, back on Mar 13th.
Chicago will hope for youngster Antti Niemi to hold up the incredible performance he has put in for just 1 more round, while hoping out of the blue wonder Michael Leighton doesnt do the same on his end for the flyers.
With Jonathan Toews running amuck, already tallying 26 pts, it really seems they dont need anyone else to get the job done. But others are getting the job done. Patrick Kane has quietly put together 20 pts, while Patrick Sharp has been alright too. Even Marian Hossa, who many have seen as unproductive these playoffs, still has 11 pts himself. Then theres the big Bs. Byfuglien & Bolland. Duncan Keith was slow starting offensively these playoffs, but is now up to 10 pts. Brent Seabrook, Nik Hjarmalsson, Brent Sopel & Brian Campbell have done a decent job at adding some offensive jump to an already strong line up from the back end. As long as John Madden & his rotating group of checkers keeps doing their job, the lethal Philly offense shouldnt have too much luck against Niemi.
Coach Joel Quenneville will expect victory from his players. A Campbell Bowl isnt enough to quench the thirst these guys have right now. They have recent Olympic Champions who know how victory tastes. They have other recent Olympians, liek patrick Kane looking to get the bitter taste out of his mouth of a near victory. he doesnt want to go thru that again I assure you. While its clear Toews, Kane, Keith, Byfuglien, Sharp, Seabrook and Niemi want this championship badly. So do the rest. Ben Eager and Troy Brouwer are just as hungry. They know this moight be the closest they ever get & there is no waiting for the next chance. Marian Hossa is at the finals for a 3rd consecutive year, with his 3rd different team. He is 0-2 so far, he certainly doesnt want to go thru the pain of losing in the finals again.
I believe Chicago Blackhawks will win this series. The Flyers might have proven me wrong 4 times already this year, but at the same time, the Hawks have proven me right just as often.
As much as the city of Philadelphia might want this after the long wait they have had. Chicago is even hungrier. Philly hasnt been a champ since 1975, Chicago 1961. The Hawks fans have had to suffer thru the horrid ownership of Bill Wirtz, a man who probably would have played the games without electricity in teh stadium if it were leglally allowed. This franchise has had no chance to be a serious competitor too often in the past couple decades. Missing the playoffs 9 of the past 11 seasons prior to now, the Hawks have suffered longer then Flyerrs fans. Two generaltions of Hawks fans havent seen a Cup hoisted, while only 1 generation of Flyers fans havent seen it happen. The Hawks have had only 3 other Cup appearances since the last win in 61. The Flyers in comparison have only missed the playoffs 6 times TOTAL since winning the Cup & have been to the Finals 5 other times since their last Cup win. Everything about this series suggests Hawks fans have suffered longer, and deserve this more.
Whoever wins the 2010 Stanley Cup will have ended some long suffering for its fans & will have prolonged the other fans suffering a little longer. For what its worth, I think it will be the fans of the Chicago Blackhawks who will have the celebratory party, and I suspect it will be after game 6.
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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.