Flyers to face Blackhawks in Stanley Cup finals

When NHL commissioner Gary Bettman hands the Stanley Cup to

Chicago captain Jonathan Toews or Philadelphia counterpart Mike

Richards, a hockey-crazed city will be satisfied for the first time

in decades.

The Stanley Cup finals are set: Blackhawks vs. Flyers.

Chicago hasn’t claimed the silver chalice since 1961, when there

were only six NHL teams, and Philadelphia wasn’t one of them. The

Flyers are seeking their first title since hoisting the Cup in 1974

and 1975, when the franchise was less than 10 years old.

Philadelphia rose from the No. 7 seed and earned its title shot

Monday night with a 4-2 victory over the Montreal Canadiens in Game

5 of the Eastern Conference finals – a far cry from its

second-round win in Game 7 against Boston that completed a 3-0

series comeback and a 3-0 rally in the decisive contest.

Chicago punched its ticket on Sunday, also at home, when the

Blackhawks completed a four-game sweep of San Jose.

After benefiting from unlikely home-ice advantage against the

eighth-seeded Canadiens, the Flyers will start the finals Saturday

night in Chicago. Philadelphia is 7-1 at home in the playoffs, 5-4

on the road.

The Blackhawks are 7-1 away from home and 5-3 at raucous United

Center in the postseason.

When the season started in October, the Blackhawks were a

popular choice to represent the Western Conference and make their

first finals appearance since 1992. The Flyers were considered a

favorite in the East.

That title talk ended quickly as Philadelphia dropped to the

bottom of the standings and replaced coach John Stevens with Peter

Laviolette in December. The Flyers ran the gamut of peaks and

valleys on either side of the holiday and Olympic breaks before

making a final playoff surge in the dwindling days of the regular

season.

“It’s been a long year,” said forward Jeff Carter, who

returned from injury in Game 4 and had two goals on Monday. “A lot

of things have happened. You learn from those. It builds character

and you just keep going with it.

“We have a group of guys in that room that no matter what

happens, they never give up. We’ve seen that come to the forefront

in these playoff series. It’s a pretty amazing thing to be a part

of.”

It wasn’t until Brian Boucher stopped New York Rangers forward

Olli Jokinen in the final round of the shootout on the final day of

the regular season that the Flyers secured a place in the

postseason.

Then they made the most of it.

“I think it’s a remarkable story,” Blackhawks coach Joel

Quenneville said. “They’re on life support the last game of the

year, in the Boston series, as well. They found a way to get

themselves where they were playing as well as they played at any

stretch this year. They got healthy.

“They’ve got a lot of ammunition there, but we’ll see what

happens.”

In their lone meeting this season, the Flyers rallied to beat

the Blackhawks 3-2 on March 13 at home when defenseman Chris

Pronger scored the winning goal with 2.1 seconds remaining.

Chicago won 11 more games than the Flyers during the regular

season and finished 24 points in front of them in the overall NHL

standings.

“I don’t think we are underdogs,” said Richards, who had a

goal and two assists in the clinching win over Montreal. “I know

what this team is capable of and how we’re capable of playing. Our

year wasn’t the same as theirs – a whirlwind and the ups and downs

and the roller coaster that we went on this year.”

After getting close a few times in recent years, Philadelphia is

playing for the Cup for the first time since being swept by Detroit

in 1997.

The Blackhawks took a different path. After reaching the

conference finals last year, this young, dynamic group from Chicago

gained the requisite experience to learn how to win.

With maturity exceeding their years, the Blackhawks challenged

for the top seed in the West, but settled for No. 2 along with

their Central Division title over defending conference champion

Detroit. Despite being an Original Six franchise, Chicago had

become a bit of a forgotten hockey city. The Blackhawks hadn’t even

finished first in their division since 1993.

That has all changed since the arrival of Toews, Patrick Kane,

and first-year starting goalie Antti Niemi, and the emergence of

power forward Dustin Byfuglien as a postseason force.

The 257-pound Byfuglien has eight goals in 16 playoff games this

year, and four have been game-winners, including the one that

sealed Sunday’s 4-2 victory.

“I think it started in the Vancouver series. All those fans

were getting on his case. He wasn’t popular in that building,”

Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp said of the man known as “Big

Buff.” “Seems like he likes the spotlight. He likes being the

hero. He steps up in big-time.”

Niemi is 12-4 in the playoffs with a 2.33 goals-against average

in 16 games.

You would never believe Chicago was the Second City in the

hockey world these days after the club surged into the Cup finals

with a sweep over top-seeded San Jose.

Michael Leighton and the Flyers are also riding quite a wave.

Philadelphia has won eight of nine overall and seven of eight since

Leighton took over in goal for the injured Boucher during Game 5

against Boston.

Leighton combined with Boucher on a shutout that night, fueling

the Flyers’ historic comeback, and then blanked the Canadiens in

each of Philadelphia’s first three wins of the conference

finals.

“We just feel comfortable playing in front of whoever is in

net,” Richards said. “All year it’s been pretty much somebody

different from month to month. The playoffs have been no different.

We feel comfortable with Leights in net as he probably feels

comfortable stepping into a situation that probably wasn’t the

easiest.”