Well, after 83 games of postseason play, all other contenders have been eliminated and the two conference champions now stand toe to toe on the verge of Stanley Cup glory. For the Blackhawks, it’s the realization of many expectations that were laid upon this young team at the very start of this season, but for the Flyers, who many picked to be in this position at the start of the year, their path to the Cup was much more dramatic. A shootout win on the final day of the regular season to clinch a playoff berth, a surprising first round upset (although, I am proud of the fact that I saw that one coming all the way), one of the great comebacks in NHL history and a dominating performance against an upstart Montreal team that had knocked off the cream of the Eastern Conference. Now that’s a playoff run. Let’s take a look and see how these two teams stack up against each other.
Offense: Both teams are led by their young captains, both figuratively and statistically. Jonathan Toews leads all playoff scorers with 26 points, and the only person with more points than his sidekick Patrick Kane is Philly’s Mike Richards. However, what has made both teams so difficult to beat this spring has been the fact that numerous other players have stepped up in huge ways. Dustin Byfuglien leads the Hawks with 8 goals, and it will likely be up to Chris Pronger to contain Big Buff if the Flyers don’t want the big guy celebrating over and over again in this series. Dave Bolland’s ten points have been huge, and if Marian Hossa starts to find his scoring touch, Michael Leighton will certainly have his work cut out for him. For the Flyers, Danny Briere (9 goals) and Claude Giroux (+10) turned in monster efforts in the absence of Jeff Carter, and have combined for 17 goals and 35 points so far. Simon Gagne came back from a foot injury midway through the Conference Semifinals against Boston and was the biggest difference maker in that series. Carter, once assumed to be out for the season, made an early return in the last series against Montreal, and he should give Philly a boost to help try and match the scoring depth of Chicago.
Defense: The backbone of both of these teams starts with their bluelines. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are no strangers to pressure, having both won gold medals in Vancouver in February, and Seabrook’s +8 rating is the highest on Chicago’s blueline. Philadelphia’s top pairing of Pronger and Matt Carle has been stellar so far, and it will be up to them to try to contain the top line of Toews, Kane and Byfuglien. Of course, those aren’t the only scoring threats on the Hawks’ bench, but Braydon Coburn (+6) and Kimmo Timonen (+7) have both been solid throughout the playoffs and will need to keep up their strong play. The Hawks are again a bit deeper on the back end, as Niklas Hjalmarsson and Brian Campbell give them a solid 2nd pairing, while Brent Sopel has a +5 rating while averaging over 18 minutes of ice time. Lukas Krajicek and Ryan Parent haven’t played a ton of minutes so far, but they will likely be called upon this series, and will have to step up when they do hit the ice.
Goaltending: Both goaltenders in this series were considerably under the radar at the start of the year. Antti Niemi was an unheralded rookie from Finland who wasn’t supposed to anything more than a backup this season, but has already turned into an unflappable championship goalie. A 12-4 record and a 2.33 GAA in a rookie postseason campaign is nothing to shrug about, and Niemi is looking to join some pretty elite company as only three rookie goalies have ever won the Cup. See if you recognize any of these names: Ken Dryden, Patrick Roy and Cam Ward. Of course, that makes a perfect segue to talk about Michael Leighton, who started the year as Ward’s backup in Carolina, but was picked up by Philly midway through the season and turned in a great stretch of play before being injured in March that lifted them back into the playoff picture. He then returned from injured reserve in the nick of time to replace the injured Brian Boucher, posting 3 shutouts and a 6-1 record against Montreal and Boston. However, his miniscule 1.45 GAA will certainly be put to the test against a Chicago offense that is infinitely more potent than either the Bruins or the Canadiens.
Special Teams: Both teams have excelled in this department, with the Hawks holding a slight edge in powerplay efficiency. Chicago has 14 goals in just 62 opportunities this postseason, while the Flyers have converted 17 of their 82 chances. On the flipside, both teams kill penalties extremely well, and have the ability to score gamebreaking shorthanded goals. The Flyers have only scored one so far these playoffs, while Chicago has 3, but both teams have talented penalty killers that are not only great in their own end but have that takeoff speed that allows them to take advantage of blocked shots and pinching defensemen.
It’s tough to pick against a team that has already overcome so much in a single postseason, but when you look at the teams that both Chicago and Philly played to get here, and consider the results, it’s even tougher to not favor the Blackhawks. Chicago downed a stingy defensive Nashville squad before embarassing Roberto Luongo and the Canucks repeatedly on the road and proceeding to sweep the regular season Western Conference champs in San Jose. The Flyers’ style of play is very similar to that of the Hawks, with aggressive forechecking and a bit of a run and gun offense at times, but Chicago has shown an incredible ability to adapt to any circumstances so far, and beating them at their own game will likely be next to impossible.
My pick: Chicago in 6