Cup finals preview: Hawks-Flyers
An Original Six Stanley Cup finals this is not, and for that, some hockey fans may be sad. But the Philadelphia Flyers bring a storied hockey history of their own to the NHL's championship series with the Chicago Blackhawks, two huge hockey markets with teams looking to end long droughts.
The Flyers haven't won the Cup since the Broad Street Bullies were beating up opponents on the way to back-to-back titles in 1974 and 1975. Thirty-five years? Ha, that's nothing. The Blackhawks carry the burden of the NHL's longest drought, a 49-year stretch that the Madhouse on Madison wants no part of seeing reach a half century.
The Hawks, of course, are the favorites; they have been a powerhouse from the superior Western Conference from day one this season. In September, the Flyers were picked by many (including this writer) to take the East, but a moribund regular season saw them struggle to make the playoffs despite a talent-laden lineup. They settled for the seventh seed in a mediocre Eastern Conference.
So, technically, they are the underdogs, but potent ones. That deep lineup finally figured it out this spring, somewhere around the time they were down 3-0 in the second round against Boston. The Flyers have won eight of nine games entering the championship series. While Chicago deserves the favorite label, this series could surprise people.
1. The captains: Boy, did these teams ever get it right when they slapped the "Cs" on their young star centers, Mike Richards in Philadelphia and Jonathan Toews in Chicago. The two Team Canada Olympic teammates are leaders in every sense of the word, and their two-way games in these playoffs are a thing to behold, as is their uncanny ability to make clutch plays when the pressure is at its greatest.
Toews is the leading contender for the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP with a whopping 26 points (7-19) in 16 games, and his offense is only the tip of the iceberg in his overall play. Regardless of the outcome of this series, one great young captain will get to lift his first Stanley Cup, just like young Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby did a year ago.
2. Remember me? Patrick Sharp, deemed not good enough by former Flyers GM Bob Clarke, was dumped to the Blackhawks along with Eric Meloche in December 2005 in exchange for Matt Ellison and a third-round pick that was later traded to Montreal. Oh, dear. This was a stinker of a deal. Ellison played a total of seven NHL games for the Flyers and will spend the year in Russia's KHL.
Sharp? Well, you know, he hasn't been too bad in the Windy City, putting up 107 goals over the past four regular seasons while also adding 16 points (7-9) in 16 games this postseason. He might just enjoy sticking it to the Flyers in the Cup finals en route to his first NHL title.
3. Remember me, too? Michael Leighton began his journeyman career in Chicago (the Blackhawks drafted him 165th overall in 1999). But you'd be hard-pressed to blame the Hawks for not seeing the potential in Leighton given the lack of interest in him over the past decade.
After 42 NHL games with Chicago, his suitcase frenzy began with a trade to Buffalo in October 2005 (the Sabres sent back Milan Bartovic). Then came stops in Rochester (AHL), Anaheim (never got called up), Portland (AHL), Nashville, Philadelphia (at both levels), Montreal (without ever playing for the Habs), Carolina, Albany (AHL) and back up to Carolina. Overall, he was on NHL waivers five times, including this season when he went on re-entry waivers before the injury-plagued Flyers picked up him as a stopgap. Some stopgap. He may never duplicate this kind of performance again, but hopefully his run to the Cup finals will earn him a fat new contract since he's an unrestricted free agent July 1. The question is, will the offensive machine that is the Chicago Blackhawks expose him?
4. Stud blueliners: Most years, it stands to reason that when the Stanley Cup finalists line up, there are Norris Trophy-caliber defensemen on each side. While the jury might be out now regarding just how much you really need to spend on goaltending these days, it's certainly not the case on the blue line, where more and more teams are spending their cap space on the men controlling the defensive zone and keying the transition game from the back end.
Philadelphia has Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen, while Chicago counters with Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith -- four super-elite rearguards who have had a huge say in their teams' deep playoff runs. The supporting cast isn't too shabby, either, with Matt Carle and Braydon Coburn for the Flyers and Niklas Hjalmarsson and Brian Campbell for the Blackhawks.
5. Unsung heroes: You can't win a championship without contributions from beyond the star players. Both the Flyers and Hawks have been getting plenty of that, as both clubs are deep in offensive talent.
Ville Leino really jumps out as the player who has raised his game in these playoffs for the Flyers; the former Red Wing has posted 12 points (4-8) in 13 playoff games and brings that Detroit postseason experience with him. What a great pickup by GM Paul Holmgren.
In Chicago, look no further than Dave Bolland. His teammates call him the "Rat" and "Greyhound" (he prefers the latter), and he's been a thorn in opponents' sides, particularly driving Daniel Sedin and Joe Thornton nuts with his checking. He's also made his unpopularity with the opposition sting even more with some clutch offensive contributions; his 10 points (5-5) in 16 games is pretty impressive while centering the third line.
• Flyers' top defense duo of Pronger and Carle versus the NHL's hottest line, Patrick Kane, Toews and Dustin Byfuglien: The Vancouver Canucks and San Jose Sharks are terrific hockey teams, but they had no answer for Chicago's top line, which has come up big for the Hawks game after game. Kane has been electrifying with the puck, backing up blueliners and creating space for his linemates. Toews, well, he just has points in 13 straight playoff games, a franchise record. Byfuglien? "Big Poppa" had three game-winning goals in the Western Conference finals alone. Scary proposition for Pronger and Carle.
• Blackhawks: Byfuglien has eight goals in his past eight games and has been a monster presence in the front of the net, impossible to move; Marian Hossa remains stone cold in the goals department, stuck at a measly pair over 16 playoff games. He's played well defensively, but so what? He's not making $7.9 million a year to chip pucks off the glass to safety.
• Flyers: Claude Giroux, the pride of Hearst, Ontario, was dynamite in the Eastern Conference finals with six points (3-3) in five games, giving him 17 points (8-9) in 17 playoff games, a breakout spring for the talented youngster. Scott Hartnell went pointless in his final four games against Montreal and has only three goals for the playoffs.
• No upset here, but perhaps a longer series than some would like to think. Hawks in six.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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