As the Chicago Blackhawks marched to the Stanley Cup Finals, defenseman Duncan Keith has shown everyone why he's nominated for the Norris Trophy as the NHL's best defenseman. In the Blackhawks' sweep of the San Jose Sharks in the Western Conference Finals, Keith had four assists and led all defensemen in the series in ice time, including an impressive 34 minutes in Game 3. His grittiest performance came in Game 4, shaking off the loss of several teeth after getting struck in the mouth by the puck to log over 29 minutes as the Blackhawks clinched the conference final.
The only chance
Most observers acknowledge the Chicago Blackhawks' depth in swift, skilled talent should make them the favorite in the upcoming Stanley Cup Finals, but hanging over this team is the knowledge this roster could be broken up next season. Expensive salaries of several star players already have the Blackhawks close to maxed out for cap space next season, meaning there will be a few salary-dumping moves in the offseason involving their second-tier talent. The knowledge that this will be the only chance for this lineup to win a championship is likely providing the Blackhawks with additional motivation to end their franchise's 49-year Stanley Cup drought.
Philly flying high
It's been the year of the underdog in the Eastern Conference playoffs, with the Philadelphia Flyers emerging as the top dog. Barely making the playoffs on the last game of the season due to a shootout, forced by injuries to go with backup goaltenders, losing several key players at different times to injury, and having to overcome a 3-0 series deficit against the Boston Bruins, the Flyers have shown tremendous character and determination in overcoming all obstacles in their way this spring. Their comeback series victory over the Bruins was history-making, but it could be topped if they can win their first Stanley Cup since 1975.
Return of the injured
The Philadephia Flyers have not had an easy road to the Eastern Conference Finals, hampered by injuries to key players throughout the playoffs. In upsetting the Boston Bruins in one of the greatest series comebacks in NHL history, the Flyers had to do it without the services of sniper Jeff Carter and checking specialist Ian Laperriere. Both were sidelined during the Flyers' opening-round upset of the New Jersey Devils, but they made a surprise return to the Flyers' lineup for Game 4 of the conference finals against the Montreal Canadiens. It'll take some time for both to fully round back into game shape, but having them back will provide a welcome boost for the Flyers' depth in their Stanley Cup quest.
Niemi's the man
Like his Finnish countryman Miikka Kiprusoff before him, Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Antti Niemi has been making a name for himself in his first postseason. In 2004 Kiprusoff carried the Calgary Flames to the Stanley Cup Finals; six years later, Niemi has done the same for the Blackhawks. Shaking off concerns about his postseason inexperience, Niemi has steadily improved, and in the Western Conference Finals he held San Jose to seven goals in four games as Chicago swept the Sharks. With his record of 12-4, a 2.33 goals-against average, a .921 save percentage and two shutouts, any lingering doubts about Niemi's postseason performance have been erased.
Pronger leads the way
Philadelphia Flyers goaltenders Brian Boucher and Michael Leighton have been key to their club's long trek through this postseason, but the real heroes have been their defensive corps, led by their 6-foot-6, 215-pound all-star, Chris Pronger. No stranger to the Stanley Cup playoff grind, Pronger leads all blueliners in postseason points with 14 and provides a steadying veteran presence both to their defensive corps and to the rest of the team. The 35-year-old Pronger has a history for nasty play, but in this year's playoffs he's played with a newfound maturity, avoiding costly cheap shots and bad penalties.
The Chicago Blackhawks have been led by their notable stars throughout their impressive run to the Stanley Cup Finals, but in the Western Conference Finals, three of their "lesser lights" came up big against the San Jose Sharks. Checking winger Troy Brouwer set up the tying goal in Game 1 and netted the insurance goal in the 'Hawks' 4-2 victory in Game 2. Center Dave Bolland is in a three-way tie for fifth in team playoff scoring (10 points), including a key goal in Game 3 and the tying goal in Game 4. But winger Dustin Byfuglien made the biggest impact against the Sharks, scoring three of the four game-winning goals in the series, tying Philadelphia's Daniel Briere for most game-winning goals this spring.
The Quiet Man
Prior to this season, few hockey fans outside of Philadelphia really knew much about Flyers forward Claude Giroux, other than for then-GM Bob Clarke forgetting his name when announcing his selection by the Flyers as the 22nd overall pick in the 2006 entry draft. Giroux had a good sophomore performance in 2009-10 with 47 points in 82 games, but in this year's playoffs he's quietly emerged as a star with 16 points in as many games heading into Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, to sit third in team scoring behind only Mike Richards and Daniel Briere, both tied with 18 points. Considering the good things that have happened for the Flyers this spring, Giroux's breakout performance is among the best.