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Spector's Stanley Cup finals preview
It’s been a long time since either won a Stanley Cup. The Flyers earned their last title in 1975, and this will mark their sixth trip to the Finals since - the most recent being in 1997. The Blackhawks have a much longer drought, having won their last championship in 1961. This will also mark their sixth trip to the Finals since their last Cup victory.
Here’s a look at how these teams match up:
Coaching: Chicago’s Joel Quenneville and Philadelphia’s Peter Laviolette deserve considerable credit in getting their teams this far. Quenneville is in his second season behind the Blackhawks bench while Laviolette took over as Flyers coach at mid-season. Quenneville won a Stanley Cup in 1996 with Colorado as an assistant coach, but Laviolette coached the Carolina Hurricanes to the 2006 championship, which could give him a slight edge in a winner-take-all series like this. Additionally, he did a tremendous job righting the ship earlier in the season.
Goaltending: At the start of this season, Antti Niemi was a little-known rookie expected to back up Blackhawks starter Cristobal Huet while journeyman Michael Leighton began the season as a backup with the Carolina Hurricanes. Both became key factors in getting their teams to the Stanley Cup Final. Niemi has seen more action than Leighton against tougher competition this spring, and while Huet has lost the starting job to Niemi he at least has more NHL experience than Flyers call-up Jonas Backlund. If Leighton struggles or gets injured, the Flyers could be in trouble.
Defense: The Flyers possess a solid corps of physical blueliners capable of wearing down an opponent. They rely heavily upon the foursome of Kimmo Timonen, Braydon Coburn, Matt Carle and former Norris winner Chris Pronger, who won a Stanley Cup with Anaheim in 2007. The Blackhawks defense tends to be faster and more mobile, frequently jumping into the offensive rush. They’re anchored by Brent Seabrook, Brian Campbell, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Norris candidate Duncan Keith. The Blackhawks appear to lack a true shutdown defenseman and are susceptible at times to defensive breakdowns, while the Flyers blueliners tend to struggle against swifter, talented opponents. Ultimately, this series could be decided by which defense is best able to shut down their opponent’s offense.
Forwards: Both clubs are stocked with considerable offensive punch. The Flyers are led by Daniel Briere, Claude Giroux, Simon Gagne, Jeff Carter, Scott Hartnell and their leading scorer, team captain Mike Richards. The Blackhawks counter with Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Dustin Bufuglien, Dave Bolland, Kris Versteeg and leading scorer and captain Jonathan Toews, who’s also the playoffs' leading scorer. Both clubs also possess considerable grit amongst their checking lines, which have also contributed offensively. Still, the Blackhawks seem to have a slight edge in speed and -- without taking anything away from the Flyers forwards -- posted up impressive numbers against stiffer opposition advancing through the Western Conference.
Statistics: The two clubs appear statistically to be evenly matched. The Blackhawks have a slight edge (fifth overall) in power-player percentage over the Flyers (eighth) this spring while the Flyers' penalty-killing percentage (87.0 percent, second overall) is only slightly above Chicago’s (86.6 percent, third overall). The Blackhawks and Flyers are also closely matched in goals-per-game average, sitting second and third respectively, while the Flyers lead in goals-against average followed by the No. 2 Blackhawks. The Flyers have also given up the fourth-fewest shots against, the Blackhawks sixth-fewest. The Blackhawks, however, have a clear advantage over the Flyers in shots on goal, sitting sixth overall this spring while the Flyers were 13th.
Injuries: After losing key players to injuries in the first two rounds, the Flyers have almost a healthy roster, as Simon Gagne, Jeff Carter and Ian Laperriere have returned to the lineup. But they still lack an experienced veteran backup as Brian Boucher, who backstopped them to a first round upset of New Jersey, remains sidelined with a knee injury.
The Blackhawks have been blessed with good health throughout the playoffs but did lose forward Andrew Ladd to a suspected wrist injury in Game Four of the Western Conference Final. He’s reportedly expected back at some point in this series.
Motivation: As the Flyers head into this series they have to be considered the underdog, having qualified for the postseason with a shootout win over the New York Rangers on the final day of the regular season, upsetting the Devils, rallying from a 3-0 series deficit to stage a history-making upset of the Boston Bruins and beating another underdog in the Montreal Canadiens in the Eastern Conference Finals. They not only believe they deserve to be in the Finals, but given the road they took to get there believe they can win it.
The Blackhawks may be the favorite but providing additional motivation is the knowledge salary cap constraints will break up this roster as several second-tier players could be shopped this summer. They realize this could be not only the only chance this current roster has to win the Stanley Cup but could also be their best chance.
Prediction: The Flyers are certainly not a team to be taken lightly in this series and have proven many folks wrong (including yours truly) in their march to the Finals, but they have not faced a playoff opponent with the depth in talent and speed possessed by the Blackhawks. And that could prove one challenge too many.
The Blackhawks are a cocky bunch, but they know better than to take the Flyers lightly. They were predicted to play for the Stanley Cup this season and are determined to end their franchise’s lengthy championship drought. Ultimately the Blackhawks' depth should tip this series to their advantage and I predict they’ll win the Stanley Cup in six games.
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