I realize that I don’t delve into the world of sports too often, but I believe the occasion presents itself here with the return of the Philadelphia Flyers to the Stanley Cup Finals against the Chicago Black Hawks starting tomorrow night.
At the outset, let me say that I never predicted this. I thought they were toast when they went down 3-0 against Boston in the second round, after defeating the New Jersey Devils in the opening round. However, they took my pessimism and stuck it right in my ear, coming back to defeat the Bruins with four straight wins, then moving on to defeat the Montreal Canadiens in five games. Good for them (though I detest the organization’s warmongering owner, Ed Snider, formerly of “Freedom’s Watch” here).
Chicago, however, is most definitely a different team from Montreal. I’ve seen the Black Hawks a few times this year, and they can defeat you a number of ways. Yes, the line of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Dustin Byfuglien (pronounced “Buffin,” I think) is formidable, but the team also has other goal scorers in Kris Versteeg and Marian Hossa, and great role-playing guys (the types who usually emerge in series like these) such as Dave Bolland and former Devil John Madden. Their defense pairing of Brent Seabrooke and Hart Trophy-finalist (for best defenseman) Duncan Keith is formidable, along with Brian Campbell and Nick Boynton, and goalie Antti Niemi is playing at peak form.
I would tend to view Chicago as the favorite, but the Flyers have a lot on their side also. I cannot recall the last time the team had this degree of balanced scoring in the playoffs, and I’ve also never seen the team as it’s currently composed playing better defense. Yes, it’s true that Michael Leighton deserves a lot of accolades, but let’s not forget Brian Boucher also; the way things have gone this season, I have a feeling we’ll see Boucher again, and I don’t mean that to knock Leighton. Chris Pronger, in addition to his stellar play, has brought other intangibles, taking some burden off Kimmo Timonen and the other defensemen. And though Danny Briere and Mike Richards have led the offense, Simon Gagne has stood tall also, and Jeff Carter returned from injury just in time against Montreal (I always thought Gagne played “soft,” but there’s nothing “soft” about his great play in the postseason, with he and Carter playing with foot injuries that would probably keep me sitting down for most of a day). And in addition to these guys, Claude Giroux, James van Riemsdyk and Arron Asham and even Dan Carcillo have come through with big goals (and Ville Leino has come from nowhere to make a big contribution as well).
As you look at the rosters of the Hawks and Flyers, I think it’s interesting that, though Chicago had a decided regular season edge in goals scored, allowed and differential between the two versus the Flyers, those numbers are a lot closer in the postseason (54 scored vs. 34 allowed for the Flyers, versus 53 and 37 for the Hawks).
There is also an interesting story to be told in the former Hawks players who are now Flyers, and that would be Leighton and defenseman Braydon Coburn, and former Flyers players who are now Hawks, such as the dangerous Patrick Sharp and fourth-line forward Ben Eager (figures that the one player let go from another bad Bob Clarke trade turns out to still be playing for another team).
I also saw that the Flyers and the Hawks have each reached the finals five times and lost since they last won Stanley Cups, so one team will break that streak. I can’t recall Chicago’s history – I believe they last won a Cup in 1960 – but for the Flyers, I can recall each of the five misses.
The first was in ’76 against Montreal, a team that was built for a dynasty, and it began with their win over the Flyers. In 1981 against a New York Islanders, they also fought hard, though they were overmatched just enough; the critical Game 6 also turned on two horrific lapses by the officials (the Isles also started a Cup run). In 1985, they again were overmatched by another team beginning a dynasty, which was the Edmonton Oilers of Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, etc. They came back in 1987 against Edmonton, and I thought they might have won had they not run out of gas from playing earlier rounds that went the duration (to their credit, both the Flyers and Hawks dispatched their opposition fairly quickly to get here, though the Boston series was the longest for Philadelphia).
In 1997, it seemed that everything was in place to break the streak with The Next One, Eric Lindros, playing with John LeClair and Mikael Renberg (Ron Hextall played in goal as he did ten years earlier, though he was sharper against the Oilers). However, the Detroit Red Wings were set to begin still another dynasty, and the Flyers were swept. As you can see from their roster, though, after you get past Lindros, LeClair, Renberg, Eric Desjardins and Rod Brind’Amour, the caliber of the team really fell off. The Flyers simply could not match Detroit’s depth.
In closing, I just want to say that we should treat this experience of the Flyers team reaching the finals as a gift. By no means should we consider this to be the “last shot” for the team, though that could be the case for Pronger, Briere, Gagne or also Scott Hartnell. The young core of forwards of this team isn’t going to go anywhere, though. Yes, it would be awesome if they won, but merely to get to this point is amazing by itself.
All I ask is that they don’t get swept. I will continue to hope that that won’t happen, if for no other reason than Peter Laviolette, the Flyers’ current coach, is much better than Terry “choking situation” Murray of the 1997 team.
Let’s keep living this dream for a little while longer (and I wonder what’s going on in the mind of Ray Emery, by the way?).