Friday, May 28, 2010
This is actually a much closer matchup than the seedings suggest. While Philadelphia finished the regular season as the Eastern Conference’s seventh seed with 88 points, 24 behind the Hawks, they shouldn't be considered heavy underdogs.
At this point Philadelphia is playing like the team everyone thought they would be at the beginning of the season, rather than the one that limped into the playoffs on the last day of the regular season.
Philadelphia is sort of like the Eastern Conference version of the Blackhawks, just a little older and maybe a little shallower on the blueline.
The Chicago Blackhawks are who we thought they were.
Let’s break this sucker down.
This is a very, very close matchup. Both teams have a deep group of forwards that attack in waves. There is no relief. Both teams finished in the top-10 in league scoring, however, Chicago finished third, while Philadelphia finished eighth.
Both captains, Toews and Richards, are currently 1-2 in the playoff scoring race. These are two of the most complete players in the entire league and two of my favourite non-Leafs (yes, I like a Flyer).
After Richards and Toews the lineups match-up very well. Carter is back from injury and Gagne and Briere are back from mediocre regular seasons. Claude Giroux has probably been the Flyers' best forward aside from Richards and he plays on the third line. Scott Hartnell provides the physical presence on the scoring lines and he has managed to chip in eight points.
Chicago is able to counter these players with Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, and Kris Versteeg. Those players are all pretty evenly matched. Kane and Hossa might give the edge to the Hawks, but Hossa hasn’t been great in these playoffs and Briere and Giroux are playing tremendously. The Hawks also have Dustin Byfuglien, who will stand in front of the net and cause massive traffic. He scored 8 goals in the past two series and looks unstoppable so far.
Even the checking lines of both teams match up well, especially now that Ian Laperriere has returned from his second shot block to the face.
The Flyers remind me of the Detroit Red Wings a few years ago. The Red Wings were able to slowly integrate Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk into the offense without overwhelming them because they still had Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov, and Brendan Shanahan to carry the offensive load. Zetterberg and Datsyuk were able to slowly become the superstars they are today without the expectations and pressure that someone like John Tavares faces with the Islanders. The Flyers are doing this with both Claude Giroux and James Van Riemsdyk. Both are able to play on the third and fourth line and slowly develop (actually rapidly in Giroux’s case) into front line players because Richards, Carter, Gagne, and Briere take the offensive load for the team.
The Philadelphia defence is layered. Chris Pronger and Matt Carle were a combined +41 in the regular season; Kimmo Timonen and Brayden Coburn a combined -8; and Lucas Krajicek and Ryan Parent a combined -28. It’s clear there is a drop off after Pronger and Carle and then an even greater drop off after Timonen and Coburn.
The Flyers understand this drop off and in the playoffs play Parent and Krajicek no more than 10 minutes a game. It helps when you are able to play Chris Pronger 30 minutes a game. Carle, Timonen, and Coburn play about 25 minutes a game.
Coburn and Timonen have elevated their game in the post-season and are a formidable second pairing. This will be extremely advantageous because the Hawks have depth up front and if the only defencemen playing well are Pronger and Carle then the Hawks will have a relatively easy time scoring.
It will also be up to Chris Pronger to neutralize Dustin Byfuglien, who has wreaked havoc the past two rounds. Vancouver and San Jose’s strategy for Byfuglien was to leave him alone in front of the net. It didn’t really work considering he scored 8 goals. But Pronger is a beast himself, so this will be a fun matchup to keep an eye on.
Chicago’s defence is almost as good as their forwards, which is saying a lot. The top-pair of Keith and Seabrook are easily the best defensive pairing in the game and they shut down the Sedins and San Jose's Big Three. They played so effectively against Marleau, Heatley, and Thornton that Todd McLellan had to break up the power trio.
Behind Keith and Seabrook are Brian Campbell, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Brent Sopel, and Jordan Hendry. Each of these players were plus players in the regular season and only Hendry is a minus in these playoffs – but the Hawks make sure he plays less than 10 minutes a night. Campbell, Hjalmarsson, and Sopel all play around 20 minutes a night, which takes some pressure off Keith and Seabrook, so they both don’t have to push 30 minutes a night.
Philadelphia basically roll four quality defencemen, while the Hawks are able to play five quality defencemen without fear of being burned.
Slight Edge: Chicago
I think at the beginning of the playoffs the biggest knock on both the Flyers and the Blackhawks was that neither had a goalie capable of winning them a Stanley Cup. They needed a goalie like Martin Brodeur, Ryan Miller, or Roberto Luongo – even though none of these goalies could take their teams past the second round.
However, both Chicago and Philadelphia followed the Detroit theory of goaltending which states that if your team is good enough then your goalie doesn’t need to win you any games, they just can’t lose them for you.
Although, this post-season both teams have also had the pleasure of having their unheralded goalies win games for them. That’s one of the reasons they defeated San Jose and Montreal so swiftly (that and the clock struck midnight for Montreal and Jaroslav Halak turned into a pumpkin).
This matchup is very even (noticing a trend here?).
Michael Leighton has been tremendous after Brian Boucher was injured and has posted a 1.45 GAA and .948% over seven games in the playoffs. He shut out Montreal three times and has only lost once. The level of competition he has faced is lower than Niemi considering Montreal and Boston both finished in the bottom five in goals scored during the regular season.
Niemi is 12-4 in the playoffs with a 2.33 GAA and .921%. He is hot coming into this series as well. Over his last five games he is 5-0 with a 1.54 GAA and .952%.
The competition he has faced exceeds that of the Flyers as well. Both Vancouver and San Jose finished in the top five in goals scored during the regular season and had five players in the top-15 in league scoring.
The Flyers penalty kill is second in the playoffs at 87%, while the Blackhawks are third with a penalty kill running at 86.6%.
Both teams take penalties at about the same rate as well. Chicago takes 10.2 minutes of penalties a game, compared to 11.9 minutes by the Flyers. If Carcillo is a healthy scratch you can bet that total isn’t as high either.
The Chicago power-play scores 22.6% of the time and the Flyers score 20.7% of the time.
Peter Laviolette has a Stanley Cup ring, but he did so with that sham 2006 Carolina Hurricanes team. Ya, that’s right, I don’t truly acknowledge their Stanley Cup victory. The ‘Canes only get by the Canadiens after being down 2-0 because they clip Saku Koivu in the face and he’s out for the series; in the Conference Final they only beat Buffalo because half of the Sabres’ defence is injured; and then they beat Edmonton because they run Roloston in the first game and injure him for the playoffs. Fake championship! However, Joel Quenneville doesn’t even have a fake championship.
Laviolette was also able to rally his team from a 3-0 deficit against the Bruins to advance to the Conference Final. That’s impressive. It helped that both Sturm and Krejci were injured for the playoffs, but winning four games in a row is still very, very impressive.
Quenneville didn’t allow any of the off-ice distractions get to his young team this year. For those keeping score those off-ice distractions ranged from the harmless (the NSP in the limo) to the potentially damaging (Pat Kane punching out a cabby).
How they got here
Philadelphia overcame a 3-0 series deficit to the Boston Bruins to advance to the Conference Final then shut-out Montreal three times in a five game series win. Those two teams were also two of the weakest teams to make the playoffs out of either conference.
The Blackhawks once again psychologically destroyed the Vancouver Canucks and then followed it up with a sweep of the Western Conference’s number one seed. Their sweep of the Sharks wasn’t even a classic San Jose choke job, but was more attributable to Chicago playing really, really well. That’s the number one and number three seed that Chicago eliminated. Their first round opponent, Nashville, actually finished the season with 100 points.
The West is a better conference than the East and the Blackhawks beat some of the better teams in that conference.
At this point both teams are unflappable. Philly came back from 3-0 in the second round and the Hawks have only lost two of their last ten games.
Will this year make the Marian Hossa curse official? This will be his third year in the Finals on different teams and each of the past two seasons his team lost. If the Blackhawks lose, Marian Hossa is either a curse or just the least clutch player in the league.
The Blackhawks have three players who have won a Stanley Cup – John Madden, Andrew Ladd, and Tomas Kopecky.
The only player on the Flyers to win is Chris Pronger and that was in 2007.
Both captains, Toews and Richards, will be known as the two definitive captains of this generation (Crosby is way too polarizing). They both play the game the way it should be played and exude a quiet confidence in everything they do. It’s hard to pick between either of them in terms of leadership qualities.
Kane, Toews, Keith, and Seabrook for the Hawks and Richards for the Flyers made huge developmental leaps this season by playing in the Olympic Gold medal game. Toews specifically seemed to hyper-mature into a Steve Yzerman clone.
I think more Hawks being a part of this epic final will be a major reason why the Hawks are able to beat the Flyers. They entered that tournament as the league’s future and emerged as the league’s present. You can't discount the big game reps these players learned in Vancouver.
Prediction: Chicago in 6