The Hockey News Stanley Cup final preview
So who's looking forward to the epic battles in front of the Philadelphia net between Chris Pronger and Dustin Byfuglien? Anyone? Anyone? Talk about your irresistible force colliding with your immovable object.
It should be a clash of the titans, but can the same be said for the Stanley Cup final between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Philadelphia Flyers? After all, on paper, the No. 2 seed in one conference against the No. 7 in the other represents, well, the most lopsided matchup since Carolina (No. 2 in the East) played Edmonton (No. 8 in the West) in 2006. And we all know how that turned out.
On the other hand, only 12 times in NHL history has there been a bigger disparity in points between the two Stanley Cup finalists than the 24 that separate the Blackhawks and Flyers this season and only twice (the Flyers finished 25 points ahead of the New York Islanders in 1980 and the Boston Bruins finished 26 ahead of the Montreal Canadiens in 1930) in history has the team with more points lost the series.
That, among other reasons, is why we're picking the Blackhawks to win their first Stanley Cup since 1961.
Throughout the playoffs, the Blackhawks power play has been slightly better, while the Flyers penalty kill has been a little more superior. Both teams are getting the type of goaltending and sacrifice behind their own bluelines to frustrate the living daylights out of opposing power plays and both have enough depth of talent up front to break through the armor. Edge: Even
Perhaps the most intriguing thing about the run both teams have enjoyed this spring has been the contribution of players who don't normally get a lot of attention or pick up the big paychecks. Both the Flyers and Blackhawks got past their opponents largely because of their depth at forward, but the Blackhawks have more upper tier talent and despite playing in a much more difficult conference to score, put up more goals than the Flyers did this season. Edge: Chicago
The Flyers, who were a middle-of-the-road defensive team during the regular season, have gone into serious lockdown mode in the playoffs. In their four wins over the Montreal Canadiens in the Eastern Conference final, they allowed just two goals. Four games. Two goals. The Big 4 of Chris Pronger, Braydon Coburn, Kimmo Timonen and Matt Carle have been absolute workhorses for the Flyers and that will have to continue in the final. The Blackhawks have more defensive depth, but the Flyers are in some kind of serious zone lately. Edge: Even
It could be argued that the Stanley Cup final has never pitted two more unheralded goaltenders. True, Flyers goalie Michael Leighton did record three shutouts in the Eastern Conference final, but it wasn't as though he was severely tested in those games. Since Leighton took over for Brian Boucher, the Flyers have collapsed around him and limited the number of quality opportunities. It's hard to argue with a .948 save percentage, but against the Canadiens, many of those saves were on shots that came from the perimeter. Antti Niemi, meanwhile, has been a major factor for the Blackhawks, who have been involved in a ton of close games this spring. Edge: Chicago
It's pretty difficult to find any warts on coaches who have guided their teams this far. Peter Laviolette has pushed all the right buttons for the Flyers and has had a tangible effect on their defensive game. Rumored to be on thin ice had the Blackhawks lost in the first round against the Nashville Predators – and for a while there, that was a distinct possibility – Joel Quenneville has directed a team that has been uncannily methodical and efficient. Edge: Even
Want to make it to the Stanley Cup final? Make a trade for Chris Pronger, who is on his third Cup finalist (Edmonton in 2006, Anaheim in 2007 and the Flyers this season) the year after coming to a team. The Blackhawks have lost five times in the Stanley Cup final since winning it in 1961, but took the Flyers out in four straight games the in 1971 quarterfinals, the only time the two teams have met in the playoffs. In the only meeting between the clubs this season, Philadelphia topped Chicago 3-2 back on March 13.
Had you said in October that Chicago and Philadelphia would be the two teams playing for the Stanley Cup, that would have sounded reasonable. Now it seems almost preposterous, but the Flyers are clearly beginning to play to their potential. But the way we see it, the Flyers, like the Predators, Canucks and Sharks, will be no match for the Blackhawks lethal combination of speed and skill. Chicago in six
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