Nearly every media outlet in North America that covers hockey coming into this season; believed that the Flyers were cup contenders. Mid-way through their 82 game journey, you would have had a hard time finding one Flyers fan that genuinely believed they would even make the playoffs. Inconsistent effort, a coaching change, players with personal turmoil, more injuries than your local emergency room and now sitting here on Memorial Day weekend…not one bit of that matters.
The Philadelphia Flyers over the last 6 weeks have become everything that was expected of them 9 months ago. They are a team forged from the fire; they have avoided being consumed by the flames of elimination 5 times; they never stopped believing in themselves and answered the bell each and every time that they had to. Their historic comeback in the semifinals against the Boston Bruins is already one of the greatest feats in Philadelphia sports history and if they capture the cup it will go down as the greatest comeback in hockey history.
Their complete and utter domination of the Montreal Canadiens in 5 games has been completely downplayed by critics. 3 shutouts in 5 games; which included an absolutely suffocating defensive performance during game 4 in Montreal. Yet, all of that has been ignored by the pundits…the Flyers are nearly unanimous underdogs. The Vegas odds are stacked against them and apparently they will have no one who can control the worlds greatest forward Wayne…excuse me, I mean Dustin… Byfuglien. Why bother even showing up to the United Center tomorrow, right?
Well, here’s how I believe your team, your town, your Philadelphia Flyers stack up against the Western Conference Champion Chicago Blackhawks…
Michael Leighton’s story sounds like a plot of a Disney flick. I won’t rehash his rise from obscurity; you’ve heard the details, it’s time to stop acting so shocked. Everyone has been waiting for the midnight hour to strike and for Leighton’s shine to wear off. Well the ball has been going on for about 6 months now and his slippers still fit just fine. Since joining the Flyers , Leighton has compiled a sensational record of 22-6-2 with 4 (and a half) shutouts. He currently leads the NHL in GAA (1.45) and save pct. (.948).
For the Hawks they have impressive rookie Antti Niemi. He has started every game in the playoffs for the Hawks and has all 12 of their victories. He is a butterfly goalie with very good size and excellent reflexes. He reminds me of Tuuka Rask to be honest and not just because they are both Finnish. Like a lot of European netminders; Niemi has exceptional agility but may struggle with some shots up high. He is coming off an excellent series against San Jose and has been exceptional on the road.
However, in these playoffs the Flyers have defeated Martin Brodeur; the best goalie of the modern era , Tuuka Rask; the regular season leader in GAA and save pct. and Jaroslav Halak; who was out of this world stealing the series’ from Washington and Pittsburgh. What does Antti Niemi have over these guys you ask? Nothing.
The Blackhawks have a fantastic set of forwards. They have tremendous depth and a very solid mix of veterans and young guns who have really taken the next step after losing in the conference finals last year. They are led by their captain Jonathan Toews. He is a very similar player to Mike Richards with his quiet leadership style and playmaking ability, but Toews has more dazzle in his offensive game with his tremendous hands. Riding shotgun to Toews, is winger Patrick Kane. An enemy to cab drivers (read the story here if you haven’t before) and goaltenders across North America, Kane is an offensive force. He has blazing speed, great vision and a tremendous wrist shot. He was one of the most dangerous players for Team USA at the Olympics in Vancouver. The most painful thing for Flyers fans watching Kane perform on this stage, is that when the Flyers finished with the worst record in their history in 2006 they lost the draft lottery thus losing the rights to pick Patrick and picked James Van Riemsdyk second overall. There are a couple of things you have to check out with Patrick Kane though… his transparent playoff beard for one, his mullet (seriously)oh yeah and this…
On Toews’ other wing is power forward Dustin Byfuglien (pronounced Buff-Lin). If you have paid attention to ESPN’s coverage or any of the media day press conferences you may think that Dustin Byfuglien is an all-star. You may also have heard that he has found the cure for cancer and that there are plans to rename the Hart trophy to the Byfuglien. A converted defenseman he’s now a giant (6’4 250) power forward who has scored some big goals for Chicago during their run. He is also a -3 at even strength during the playoffs and tallied only 34 points during the regular season. Not exactly hall of fame numbers here.
The Hawks boast serious secondary scoring threats in the human jinx Marian Hossa, young Kris Versteeg and former Flyer Patrick Sharp. They also have veteran defensive forward John Madden and gritty Dave Bolland heading up their penalty kill.
Do you remember when Ben Eager was in Philly? Well you certainly will after he takes a few reckless runs at the Orange and Black on Saturday. He’s a bowling ball with a big mouth who rarely backs it up with anyone who can actually throw them. He will be public enemy #1 pretty quickly in this series.
With the return of Jeff Carter and Ian Lapperiere the Flyers have restored the depth that was their key to making the playoffs in the first place. The top line of Richards, Gagne and Carter may be the best two-way line in the league. All 3 are great in their own zone and can enable Peter Laviolette to match up with the Toews line without giving up an offensive counter-punch. With Danny Briere and Ville Leino threatening on nearly every shift and the emergence of Claude Giroux on the 3rd line, the Flyers come close to matching the firepower of the Hawks. The 4th line centered by Blair Betts is a fiercely competitive trio which will be a key to locking down the Hawks second line especially on the road when the matchup’s will not always be in order. I also fully believe that Danny Carcillo will be back in the lineup to combat some of Ben Eager’s antics.
Advantage: Hawks…but not by much.
Two words, Chris Pronger. Seriously, that should be all I have to tell you in describing who I think holds the advantage on the blue line. Chris Pronger has the size, smarts, skills and experience to lead this team to a championship. He’s done it before and just like with the Ducks he’s not working alone. Kimmo Timonen anchors the second pairing and is among the games most underrated defenders. A strong puck mover with offensive skill, where Timonen really shines is in his own zone; blocking shots and breaking up scoring chances with his incredible stick work. 4th year blueliners Matt Carle and Braydon Coburn have also had very strong playoff runs. The third pairing of Lukas Krajicek and Ryan Parent will see about 4 minutes a night.
Chicago has some fine defenseman on their end as well; with smooth skating Duncan Keith has all world offensive skill from the backend but he can be prone to turnovers. Keith’s defense partner is the physical Brent Seabrook; a shut down defender with a booming shot who has had a very solid season. This will be the top pair that the Flyers top line has faced in the playoffs. Young Niklas Hjalmarsson has stepped up as a solid offensive #3 for the Hawks. Brian Campbell (yeah, the ginger who knocked out RJ Umberger) who sports the leagues worst contract brings his offensive skill but generally inept defensive play to their second pairing. Brent Sopel is a solid 3rd pairing defender, Jordan Hendry is a liability and his ice time will be limited.
The Chicago Blackhawks are a very talented team with highly skilled forwards and a couple of all world defenseman. They are not however the ’87 Oilers. They are a very young team with rookie goaltending. The Flyers have been through so much already and I genuinely believe that they will not allow the chance to be immortalized pass them by. The veterans on this team know this may be their only shot. Danny Briere, Kimmo Timonen and Simon Gagne have never been here. Ian Lapperiere has sacrificed himself for 15 years, what will he do for a chance at a championship? Mike Richards and Chris Pronger will not let them fail.
Flyers in 6.