It is now set: the Chicago Blackhawks will face the Philadelphia Flyers in the Stanley Cup Finals. What a matchup!
Back in September, this was a believable pair of teams for the Finals. While the Blackhawks have stayed at or around the top of the Western Conference the entire season, it wasn't until the final day of the regular season in a shootout that the Flyer made the playoffs after a season with more ups and downs than a game of "Candyland." Seven goaltenders and two head coaches have led the Flyers to where they are now, headed to Chicago.
As different as the paths to the Finals have been for these two teams, they share a lot in common. Let's take a look at some of the themes that tie these two franchises together as they prepare to compete for hockey's ultimate prize.
1. The 2007 Draft
In the summer of 2007, for the first time in the history of the Original Six franchise, the Chicago Blackhawks had the first overall pick in the NHL Draft. They had a choice to make between a small kid with a magical ability to control the puck from Buffalo and a big, strong kid from New Jersey. When then-GM Dale Tallon stepped to the podium in Columbus, OH, he confidently read the name of the kid from Buffalo, Patrick Kane.
With the second overall pick, the Philadelphia Flyers selected the kid from Jersey, James Van Riemsdyk. By selecting Van Riemsdyk second, the 2007 Draft marked the first time in the history of the NHL that American-born players were the top two selections in the draft, forever tying the two kids together.
Kane, despite his size, jumped straight to the NHL and had an immediate impact. He won the 2007 Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie and has continued to progress as a player. He had one of the most productive seasons of any Blackhawks player in the last 20 years in 2009-10, leading the Blackhawks with 88 points (matching his number), 30 goals and 58 assists. He also ranks second in the 2010 postseason (behind Jonathan Toews) with 20 points (7 G, 13 A).
Van Riemsdyk, meanwhile, did not matriculate to the NHL until this season. He played in 78 games and finished the season with 15 goals and 35 assists. The ceiling appears to be very high for the second pick in the 2007 draft.
2. The 2009 Free Agent Class
In the summer of 2009, there were two marquee free agents that towered above every other name on the market. One had played in consective Stanley Cup Finals and was an elite scorer, while the other was one of the premier defensemen of the last 20 years. Both would sign long-term contracts that would eventually be reviewed by the NHL because of their length and structure, and both would play a key role for their respective teams this season.
Marian Hossa agreed to terms with the Blackhawks just moments after the opening of the free agency period. He would have shoulder surgery just a couple weeks later, and missed the first month of the season rehabbing from the injury. Once he entered the Blackhawks' lineup, though, he was dynamite. In 57 games, Hossa had 24 goals, 27 assists and ended the season +24, all while spending most of his time on the Blackhawks' second line.
Chris Pronger, meanwhile, agreed to terms with the Flyers and began the season in the same relative funk as the rest of his teammates. Lots of blogs questioned if Pronger was the right addition, and the Flyers ultimately made a change behind the bench in an effort to spark a revival. It worked, and Pronger's play overall this season was exceptional. Indeed, he probably should have been a Norris Trophy finalist. He ended the season among the league leaders in hits and blocked shots.
3. Canadian Olympic Teammates
One of the intriguing parts of the 2010 Western Conference Finals was the fact that the top offensive line for the Sharks (Dany Heatley, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau) played for Canada in the winter Olympics with the Blackhawks top defensive pair (Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith). Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle and Blackhawks' captain Toews were also on the Canadian roster.
In the Stanley Cup Finals, the same will be true again. Pronger and Flyers' captain Mike Richards were members of the same Canadian gold medal-winning team.
4. Stanley Cup Champions Added
Both teams added veterans to their rosters through free agency last summer with Stanley Cup experience.
For the Blackhawks, adding John Madden as a third/fourth center was an enormous addition. The Selke Award winner is one of the best penalty killing centers in the game and, despite his age, has been a key contributor for the Hawks all season. Madden has two Stanley Cup championship rings from his time with the New Jersey Devils.
Pronger brought jewelry of his own to the Flyers last summer. He was a member of the 2007 Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks and, like Hossa, will be playing in the Finals for a third franchise this year.
For the Blackhawks, Andrew Ladd also has a ring from Carolina.
5. Castaways Looking for Payback
Finally, both the Blackhawks and Flyers will have key players getting a chance to compete against a team that gave up on them.
Patrick Sharp was drafted in the third round (95th overall) by the Flyers in the 2001 NHL Draft, but never got a chance to crack into the NHL while in the Philadelphia organization. He was ultimately dealt to the Blackhawks on Dec. 5, 2005, with Éric Meloche for Matt Ellison and a 3rd round pick in the 2006 Draft. He finished that campaign with a combined 31 points between the two teams. Sharp finally got his full-time chance in the NHL with the Blackhawks in 2007-08, and had a great season, scoring 36 goals and adding 26 assists.
On the other side of the ice, Micheal Leighton has had a much longer road to where he now stands between the pipes for the Eastern Conference champion Flyers. He was selected in the sixth round (165th overall) by the Blackhawks, and unlike Sharp would get a chance in the NHL with the team that drafted him. Leighton made his debut on Jan. 8, 2003, and had a shutout against the Phoenix Coyotes. He would battle with Craig Anderson (now the starter for the Colorado Avalanche) for the backup goalie position until he was dealt to the Buffalo Sabres in October 2005.
Leighton would spend time with Buffalo's AHL affiliate before being let go, and then his tour of the NHL would begin. Since the 2005-06 season, Leighton has spent time with the Nashville Predators, Flyers, Carolina Hurricanes and now is back in Philadelphia. He was one of seven goalies used by the Flyers in the 2009-10 season, and appeared in just 27 games for the Flyers during the regular season.
For the record, Ben Eager was also dealt to the Blackhawks by the Flyers.
Clearly, these two franchises have a great deal of overlapping themes and players heading into what should be a fantastic Stanley Cup Finals.