Thursday, May 27, 2010

2010 Stanley Cup Finals preview

By Rick Morris

Yet again, hockey’s postseason has burned brighter than the one contested on the hardcourts. We have seen Montreal pull historic upsets in two different rounds. We have seen Philadelphia pull off the third 0-3 comeback in a playoff series in league history – and they did it at the expense of the city that managed the only such comeback in Major League history in 2004. We have seen San Jose finally assert themselves as a postseason power in the West, sending home the era’s dominant team in the conference in Detroit – only to skate into a buzzsaw against the mighty Blackhawks in the conference finals.

And we have one round yet to go.

At the beginning of the season, I accurately picked one of the finalists to be here in this round. Shockingly, it was not Chicago. I did actually pick Philadelphia to win the Eastern Conference, and not as a division winner either (I had them slotted as the #4 seed). I did foresee some bumps along the way, but I figured that the veteran presence of Chris Pronger would really help in the postseason. These predictions have certainly manifested themselves.

Here’s some thoughts on how the teams measure up to one another:

^ These teams blazed radically different paths to reach this point. Chicago did face a substantial underdog in the first round in Nashville and ironically, they had to survive quite a scare to prevail in that series. From there, however, they reasserted their superiority of a year ago over a very good Vancouver squad and made mincemeat of a Shark team that had – prior to that point, anyway – put away their “chokers in spring” tag. The Flyers took an easier path on paper to the Finals, first putting away a New Jersey team that has long been a shell of its postseason self, then lollygagging for three games against a Boston team fighting through poor health before roaring back to life. The hot streak remained against Montreal in a strange 7-8 matchup in the conference finals as the Canadiens finally resembled the lowest seed in the East. For the Flyers, who needed a final-day shootout win over the Rangers just to make the playoffs, this run has been less that of a Cinderella and more that of a team finally playing up to its potential at exactly the right moment.

^ Much is made of Chicago’s depth, about how they have the most dangerous top three lines in the league, but Philadelphia is fairly potent during those brief snatches of time when everyone is at full strength. The importance of Simon Gagne’s return from injury in the epic comeback against Boston this year shows how dominating he and the other big guns (Carter/Richards/Briere) can be when they are healthy and at their best. Nobody in the league stacks up to Chicago’s depth at this moment, but the Flyers match up more respectably than most.

^ On the blue line, it would be too pat to portray this series as a potential “passing the torch moment,” since the games of the two players are not entirely similar, but Philly’s Chris Pronger and Chicago’s Duncan Keith will be watched as closely as any two players on the ice. Pronger is probably the player in the series most known to casual fans due to his sustained success over a long period of time and Keith is making a case for himself as the best defenseman in the game right now.

^ Those expecting these two teams to come up short in the playoffs surely would have cited goaltending as a fatal flaw for each. Instead, Antti Niemi and Michael Leighton have come up huge, repeatedly. Neither has a blue-chip pedigree, but Niemi’s prior success in Finland makes him look like royalty compared to Leighton’s journeyman track record. Leighton, of course, is only in net as a type of historical accident, with injuries having previously sidelined Ray Emery and Brian Boucher. Again, while neither goalie comes in with the mark of a purebred, a title for Philly would be an enormous historical oddity inasmuch as the winning goalie has rarely if ever had a resume as underwhelming as Leighton’s.

How do I see this materializing in the end? Frankly, not much differently than the vast majority of analysts. As a previously-admitted Wings fan, I would dearly love to find a reason to pick against my team’s ancient Original Six rival. I do believe that Philly has the proverbial “puncher’s chance,” with their potential for strong scoring and physical play that disrupted Montreal (this season’s true giant-slayer, having previously taken down Washington and Pittsburgh). But the only rationale for picking against the Hawks in this postseason has always come down to their question mark(s) in net and the biggest challenges have likely already been met. Almost all of the games in this series will be hard-fought and down to the wire. Almost all of them will go the same way, however. No, bitter Penguins fans, there is no “Marian Hossa curse.” Chicago in 5.

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