The Stanley Cup Finals start on Saturday in Chicago. One word to describe this final? Bizarre.
On one hand you have the Chicago Blackhawks, a team that is no surprise to be here. They are a young team that has built from within over the last few years of strong drafting and have added some nice free agent pieces to complete the puzzle. They were the second overall team in the Western Conference, but they were very easy to like.
On the other hand, though, you have the Philadelphia Flyers. They made it into the playoffs on the last day of the season by beating the Rangers in a shootout. They were down 3-0 to the Bruins, but then came back to become the first team in 35 years to overcome that deficit. They became the lowest seeded team ever to host a conference final, and they made it look easy in their win over the Canadiens. The team had seven different goalies on the roster this year, and were so bad in December that coach John Stevens was fired and replaced with Peter Laviolette. There are about a hundred reasons this team shouldn't be here, yet here they are just four wins away from all the glory. Like I said, bizarre.
The oddsmakers aren't giving the Flyers a lot of credit in this one. Sports Interaction has them at 11/5 to win the series, with the Blackhawks heavily favored at 3/10. Chicago clearly has the edge, but how big is that edge? Here's a look:
The path here - Philadelphia started out by beating the Devils in a surprisingly easy series. They faltered against Boston before fighting back, and then outclassed Montreal badly in four of the five games in the series. It's a reasonably impressive run, but it's also a very lucky one. They didn't have to play Alexander Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby, and they got a Montreal team that was exhausted after back-to-back seven-game series. Chicago has been even more impressive. They looked solid against Nashville, and frustrated Vancouver and totally knocked them off of their gameplan. It was in their series win over San Jose that they really showed how good they are, though. It was a showdown between the top two teams in the conference, and two of the top three in the league in most eyes, so it should have been tight. Chicago started out strong and got better as things went along to earn the unlikely sweep.
Head to Head - In the only meeting of the season on March 13, Philadelphia tied it up with just over two minutes left, then scored with three seconds on the clock to secure the home win. Goalie Michael Leighton made 39 saves in the win.
Best players - Chicago center Jonathan Toews is the star of the Blackhawks. He had just one assist in his first three games. Since that slow start, though, he has been unstoppable. He has recorded at least one point in every game, and has seven goals and 19 assists in 16 games. The best player on the team has been the team's best player. Incredibly, Toews is only 22 years old. Mike Richards, the star for the Flyers, is ancient by comparison - he's 25. He has been almost as good as Toews - 21 points in 17 games. The young players are the top two scorers in the playoffs. The only difference between the two is consistency - Richards was held off the scoresheet three times against Montreal.
Defense - There hasn't been a lot to differentiate the two teams defensively. They are the two best teams in the playoffs in goals against, with a slight edge to Philadelphia thanks to their three shutouts of the Habs. They are the second and third best penalty killing teams, with Philadelphia slightly ahead and having faced 10 more opportunities. The two teams both have stars. Philly's Chris Pronger has been the best defensive player in the playoffs, and has absolutely shut down the best the opponents have to offer. He has a deep defense around him. Mike Richards is the best penalty killer in the playoffs and probably the league. Chicago might not have quite as much talent, but with Brian Campbell and Brent Seabrook they aren't far behind.
Offense - These teams are remarkably close here. Chicago has a slight edge in scoring - 3.31 goals per game compared to 3.18 for the Flyers. Both teams have seven guys with double-digit points, and three averaging a point of game or more.
Goalies - This is an odd pair. Neither Antti Niemi nor Michael Leighton came into the season or the playoffs as the clear No. 1 guy on their team. Niemi got the first chance to prove himself, and he did so - he has won all 12 games for Chicago. Leighton only got his chance after Brian Boucher was injured, but he has made the most of it - he shut Montreal out three times. Both guys are in the zone and reasonably healthy, and both have shown they can carry their teams. Neither is a true star, but that never matters in the playoffs is the guy is hot.
Coaching - Joel Quenneville of Chicago is making his finals debut as a coach, but he's still experienced. In 13 years as a coach he has made the playoffs 12 times (he was fired before the end of the season the 13th time), and has made it to the conference finals three times. Since taking over his team early in the season last year he has done a very good job of keeping this team on the road to improvement that they have been on. Peter Laviolette is working miracles in Philadelphia. He took over a very troubled, constantly bickering team in December, limped them into the playoffs, and then somehow woke them up. His calming presence engineered the comeback against Boston, and his fingerprints were all over the Montreal win. This is only his fourth playoff appearance, and the second time that his team has won a series, but he led the Hurricanes to a reasonably unlikely Cup in 2006, so this is familiar territory for him.
Conference strength - The West is unquestionably the superior conference. The Flyers would have been 12th in the West, while the eighth-place team in the West - Colorado - would have been fifth in the East. The top teams in the West fared much better in the playoffs than the East as well - the top three Eastern teams were all eliminated in the first round.