In the next couple of weeks, a long Cup draught will finally come to an end. So which one will it be? At the start of the season, these two teams were picked by many to meet in the big dance; however, the road by which we got here wasn't at all foreseeable. The Hawks took care of business, as expected, in the West, with little fanfare. The Flyers have had a run for the ages that started on the last night of the regular season, took us through a historic Round 2 comeback, and finished with a smack down on the Cinderella Canadiens.
This really is the story on both sides of the rink. The Flyers entered the playoffs with the ageless stigma of questions in net. Going back several decades, the team has never been able to nail down a solid #1 option good enough to match the talent in front of him. Who could have seen then, that after 3 rounds of action, the Flyers have the 2 best goalies, statistically, in the playoffs. Should Boucher manage to recover from his knee injuries in the next week, there's a possibility of a goaltending controversy late into the Final round (should Leighton falter).
As for the Hawks, Niemi has been everything they prayed for and more. He comes into the final round as a favorite for the Conn Smythe trophy, thanks to his solid, consistent play throughout the first 3 rounds. While the big names this year either didn't qualify or were ousted early in the playoffs, a handful of lesser knowns have stepped up to steal the spotlight. Given the performance of these men to this point, there is no reason to believe that either side holds an edge in this category. Neither Niemi nor Leighton have ever played in a situation like this before, so there's little history to go on there. Consider this a wash.
Both teams can bring a variety of scoring to the table, with top end talent spilling down to the third line. Neither team has to depend too much on just one or two guys to get it done, which is obviously what you need to make it this far. In the regular season, the Hawks outscored the Flyers by a considerable margin, and that was without Hossa for a good portion of the year. Then again, they seem to have advanced to the Finals without Hossa producing in the playoffs as well. Eventually, he's bound to find the net, which means additional trouble for the Flyers.
In addition to Hossa, the Hawks bring two star forwards on one line with Toews and Kane. Byfuglien has conjured up the ghosts of John Druce and Fernando Pisani to lead the team in goal scoring thus far. Add to the mix offensive talent like Bolland, Sharp, and Versteeg, and it's going to be tough for Philadelphia to shut them down, the way they were able to do against lesser opposition.
The Flyers are no slouch up front either, and they've shown the are willing to play hurt to win. Despite going down with "season ending injuries", Simon Gagne, Jeff Carter, and Ian Laperriere have all returned and played significant roles. Briere and Richards have been earning their big bucks by leading the team in scoring, but the most significant contributions may be those from youngsters Claude Giroux and Ville Leino. Leino in particular has shown incredible skill on a team where he could easily get lost in the mix.
Tough to say who has the edge in this department, but every shift should provide adequate excitement for the fans.
This will be the first major challenge that the Flyers have faced this postseason. Up until now, their competition has been extremely hurting in terms of offensive firepower, which may go a long way towards explaining their incredible goals against average thus far. After all, what is there to fear in the likes of New Jersey, Boston, and Montreal, the 3 lowest scoring regular season teams in the East to qualify for the playoffs. Those three team combined for 645 goals in the regular season. Compare that to the 761 goals for scored by Chicago's opposition (Vancouver, Nashville, and San Jose).
The Flyers have taken a top-heavy approach through the first 3 rounds, relying almost exclusively on the top two pairings. Pronger, Timmonen, Coburn and Carle have averaged close to 30 minutes a game a piece. It remains to be seen if all four of these horses can be driven so hard for so long. If they can maintain the pace, then Coach Laviolette is wise to ride his top guns. If one or more start to sputter, they might start to expose a weakness.
Chicago easily matches the Flyers in terms of top end talent. Duncan Keith, the likely front runner for this year's Norris Trophy, is showing the world what hockey players are made of after losing 7 teeth without missing a shift. The Hawks are deeper on defense, and can generate more offense from the backend than the Flyers can. Since they can trust their depth players a bit more, Keith, Seabrook, and Campbell can stay a little more rested, which should help them as the series goes on. Advantage Chicago.
History shows that this is an endurance contest, and the team that ultimately goes on to win more often than not enjoys a short series along the way to heal their wounds. Chicago faced much better competition so far, and dispatched their opponents in fewer games. After sweeping the Sharks, the Blackhawks should be at 100% going into game 1. After having to battle back to win round 2 in 7 games, the Flyers did themselves a favor by making quick work of Montreal. Going back to the Boston series, it's debatable which says more about the team: the fact that they have what it takes to come back in any series, or the fact that they ever went down 3-0 to such a weak opponent.
Bottom line is that these teams match up quite well and for both squads, this will be their toughest opponent yet. Forget the seeds, Philadelphia and Chicago have both proven they deserve to be here. Ultimately, Chicago's defense will most likely outlast the big four from Philly, giving the Hawks their first title since 1961, thus making the Toronto Maple Leafs the new New York Rangers.
Chicago in 6.
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