Stanley Cup Preview

Chris Pronger and Mike Richards have been phenomenal for the Flyers so far. Don't expect things to change in the Stanley Cup Finals.

I wonder how many people picked the Chicago Blackhawks and the Philadelphia Flyers to play for the Stanley Cup in September? I did. I definitely was not alone.

The Blackhawks were the ‘sexy’ pick in the West. They had a young, talented roster that made it to the Conference Finals the year before and added Marian Hossa in the summer. Duncan Keith had emerged as a premier defenseman in the league and Brent Seabrook had made incredible strides as well. Sure there were questions about how Christobal Huet would handle a full season as a starter, but with a defense boasting the likes of Keith, Seabrook and Brian Campbell, he didn’t exactly have to be Tony Esposito.

The Flyers looked like a team in much the same mold. The Flyers were arguably just as deep as Chicago up front, led by 46-goal-scorer Jeff Carter. The addition of Chris Pronger, one of the most respected and at the same time despised defensemen in the league, to a lineup that already featured Scott Hartnell, Daniel Carcillo and Mike “Bobby Clarke Jr.” Richards had visions of the Bullies dancing in the heads of the Philadelphia faithful. Of course, they still had not solved the same problem the team had had since Ron Hextall was between the pipes, but surely Ray Emery had turned his game around in Russia and was ready to return to his 2007 Playoffs form.

Two deep and dynamic groups of forwards. Two star-studded defenses. Two big questions in net.

Chicago came flying out of the gate to start the regular season and remained one of the top teams in the West all season. When Huet and his .895 save percentage did not cut it for the ‘Hawks, they gave 26-year-old Antti Niemi a shot. All the back-up-turned-starter-turned-Conn-Symthe-dark-horse did was go 26-7-4 with seven shutouts. The Blackhawks finished second in the West, one point behind San Jose for the top spot.

For the most part, Chicago’s playoff run has been a cake walk. It took the ‘Hawks six games to dispatch both Nashville and Vancouver before sweeping away the top-ranked Sharks in the Western Conference Finals (see Byfuglien, Dustin). Captain Jonathan Toews is leading the playoffs in scoring with 26 points and Niemi has been excellent in net when they have needed him to be.

The Flyers on the other hand had a very different route. After starting off a disappointing 13-11-1 and finding themselves in 10th place in the East to start the month of December, the Flyers fired head coach John Stevens and brought in former Cup-winner Peter Laviolette. The Emery experiment was a failure as he was hampered by injury and inconsistency before going down for the season after surgery on his right hip. Journeyman goaltender Brian Boucher filled in and general manager Paul Holmgren brought in back-up Michael Leighton, who had played under Laviolette in Carolina.Despite a revolving door in net, and injuries up front the Flyers limped into the playoffs on the last day of the season, courtesy of a shootout victory over the New York Rangers.

If you picked the Flyers to make it this far after the season, and weren’t from Philadelphia, would you mind picking up a couple lottery tickets for me?

The consensus was that the New Jersey Devils, with their mix of gritty U.S. Olympic heroes (Zach Parise and Jamie Langunbrunner), the addition of Ilya Kovalchuk and one of the greatest of all-time between the pipes, would make short work of the inconsistent and injury-riddled Flyers. Richards and Boucher had other plans, and in one of the most surprising first round upsets, Philly ousted the Devils in five games.

Next came the Boston Bruins, and we all know what happened there. Not only did the Flyers become only the third team in NHL history to come back in a series after being down 3-0, but Leighton came on in relief of the injured Boucher in game five and gave up only four goals in three games.

The Flyers silenced any remaining critics by shattering Montreal’s dreams of a 25th Stanley Cup and first Finals appearance since 1993. Leighton shutout the Habs three times and it only took five short games to knock them out, despite a possible sabotage attempt at the Bell Centre.

And that, my friends, is how we get to where we are today – anxiously awaiting the start of the Stanley Cup Finals. The series starts Saturday, where the United Center will be the setting for game one. The Blackhawks may have been Cup favorites all year long, but Philadelphia matches up with them as well as any team in the league.

Both teams are riding hot goaltenders. Both teams are getting Conn-Smythe-worthy performances from their captains. But only one team can win it, and I’m going with the Flyers for three reasons.

1) Chris Pronger

Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren acquired Pronger this offseason for precisely this reason. Pronger’s playoff performance, for the most part, has been spectacular. He has showed up all the critics who questioned how much he had left in the tank after a disappointing showing in the Olympics. Pronger has been a workhorse averaging nearly 29 minutes, tops in the playoffs. He’ll be on the ice against the Byfuglien-Toews-Kane line all night long and he has the size to handle Dusty B. Plus, Pronger has the experience. He won the Cup with Anaheim in 2007 and made it the game seven the year before with Edmonton. You can make a convincing argument that he was the most valuable player on both of those teams, and I for one think he’ll have his name on the short list by the time this series ends.

2) Mike Richards

With all due respect to Mr. Toews in Chicago, is there a captain in this league that does more for his team? Richards is second in playoff scoring with 21 pionts. He’s scored or set up crucial goals throughout Philly’s remarkable run. He registered five points in the Flyers’ four-game comeback over the Bruins and three in the game five clincher over Montreal. But Richards may be even more valuable without the puck on his stick. He has been a catalyst for an excellent Flyers penalty kill and he’s not afraid to lower the shoulder and make a run. He’s rock-em sock-em hockey player who’ll do anything to will his team to victory, just ask Montreal. And, with the return of Carter from injury, he’ll have another option on the power play, making the Flyers even more dangerous.

3) Marian Hossa

Forget all the ‘curse’ talk with Hossa. There has been nothing supernatural about his playoff performance. Hossa has all but disappeared for the ‘Hawks in the past two rounds. He registered only three points in the series against Vancouver and only a single point in the sweep of San Jose. While he continues to contribute with solid two-way play, it looks like he is shaping up for another Finals disappearing act. Sure, Chicago has plenty of depth at forward, but so does Philadelphia, and their stars are producing. If the Flyers are able to contain Toews and co., Chicago is really going to need Hossa to step it up, and I just don’t see that happening.

With all that said, this has the makings for a classic Finals match-up. Let’s just say I don’t think fans are going to have that empty feeling that they had after the Conference Finals ended so abruptly.

Prediction: Philadelphia in seven

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