Last night the Philadelphia Flyers put an end to the Eastern Conference Finals by beating the Montreal Canadiens 4-2. Now we have the Stanley Cup match-up set and ready. The Chicago Blackhawks will host the Flyers for game 1 of the Cup Finals this coming Saturday night at 8PM EST/7PM CST on NBC. The Blackhawks will come in as the favorite, one of the top seeds out West who have gone through some of the top teams in their conference and swept the #1 seed Sharks last round. The Flyers will come in again as the underdog team, something they have done most of the postseason being a #7 seed that has emerged from the East where underdogs dominated. So which storyline follows through and continues? Can the Flyers keep coming up big when they need it and win it all with a goalie in Leighton who no one expected to play, much less win? Or can Chicago keep their strong run going with one of the best overall rosters in the NHL, and use that amazing defense and goaltending to silence anything the Flyers do?
Let me analyze this and break down the series:
Offensively: Chicago has the better offense at first glance. A top line that has been on fire through the playoffs. Jonathan Toews is viewed as the top Conn Smythe contender right now by most people, Kane creates and distracts many times, and Big Buff gets around the net and finds ways to score. Add in Sharp, the pest and checker Bolland contributing, Versteeg and a defense that can also score and Philly may have a hard time. But along with everyone that has produced Chicago also has a guy named Hossa who can be a big threat, yet the Blackhawks have been so strong with him only having 4 points in the last two rounds. If Hossa starts finding any sort of spark it could really put the Flyers in a really tough situation. Philadelphia can counter with a very nice set of centers in Richards, Briere and Carter and wingers such as Gagne, Giroux, Hartnell, and Leino. I am not at all saying that the Flyers are offensively a lesser team, as they have the ability to score and have shown it this postseason. But I still have to give a slight edge to the Hawks as I think they have a bit more depth and that top line has already gone right through some good defenses and goalies. EDGE: Just slightly for the Blackhawks
Defense: Now this is where the series might be closer. Chicago sends out a top pair of Keith and Seabrook and also has Campbell, Hjalmarsson and a big shot blocker in Sopel. Philadelphia bolsters a very nice defense as well with Chris Pronger, Timonen, Carle, and Coburn. Both of these teams hold true to the belief that you need a good D to get deep into the playoffs. Both teams will try to get certain match-ups on the ice as often as possible and have forwards that can check and bother scoring lines. Part of the reason both of these goalies have been great in the playoffs has been the great defenses they have in front of them. EDGE: Push – Both teams have top notch defenses
Goalie: Here is where the series could either collapse and go one way quick, or hold up and become a great series. Niemi has been great for the Blackhawks in the playoffs and has put to rest the idea that Chicago should have traded for a goalie at the deadline. After the first 3 rounds he has a 2.33GAA and a .921 SV%, impressive numbers after facing two teams with offensive capabilities like San Jose and Vancouver. He has shown that he can be the #1 guy in Chicago and has provided key saves at times when opponents try to counter back after Chicago goals or rushes. The man at the other end of the rink has been amazing as well, and no one could have predicted he would even be playing. Michael Leighton has jumped off the bench and become a hero and leader for the Flyers. After Boucher came in and started the playoffs as the great story, then he gets injured in the second round. With Emery injured too, Leighton comes in out of necessity and surprisingly starts playing like a superstar. In 8 games, 7 of them being starts, he is 6-1 with a 1.45GAA and .948 SV%. Although it is not many games, he has played better then anyone could have expected and is getting great help from his defense around him. If he keeps playing like this then he could help the Flyers greatly in their bid to pull off one more upset. But over a 6 or 7 game series the Blackhawks will get traffic and bodies all around him like they have all playoffs long. How he holds up and/or reacts will decide the series. EDGE: Push again
So what does this mean for the series? I think this one could be close. After seeing less overtime games as the playoffs have moved on, I can see 2-3 games from this series going to OT and more games being one goal games then games that are not. I know most people do predict the Blackhawks to win the Cup, but I have heard plenty of Hawks in 5 or 6 picks. I do believe the Chicago wins, but in a close series. If the Blackhawks keep playing great on the road, I do not see them losing. Prediction: Blackhawks win it in 6.