Throughout the Hawks' run to the Stanley Cup Finals, they've been called a "team of destiny." The franchise has taken so many huge steps forward that it just seems that way.
Does this Hawks team deserve that billing? I think one could make the argument. The story of the turnaround from a business standpoint has been discussed to death, but how about the product on the ice? The Hawks have gone from 9th place in 2007-08 to the Stanley Cup Finals two years later. The team is now being forced to scratch several very capable players on a nightly basis ( Fraser, Kopecky, Bickell) because the roster is just that good and that deep.
The city of Chicago has fallen in love with this team. More people in Chicago watched the Hawks clinching victory over San Jose on Sunday than the LOST or Celebrity Apprentice series finales.
This is too much of a feel good story to come to a screeching halt in the Finals, right?
They're saying the exact same thing about the Flyers in Philadelphia.
While the Hawks' talent has garnered Stanley Cup expectations since October, the Flyers weren't even a lock to make the playoffs. It took a shootout win on the final day of the regular season for the Flyers to sneak in to the Eastern Conference's top 8, and they had to come back from a 3-0 series deficit to beat Boston in the Conference Semis. I hate to say it Hawks fans, but THAT is a team of destiny.
That doesn't mean their destiny is to win the Stanley Cup, however. I'd like to think that it was simply to get here.
This year's Montreal Canadiens taught us that even the most remarkable underdog stories don't always have a happy ending. They came back from a 3-1 series deficit to beat the top-seeded Capitals. They knocked off the defending champion Penguins in seven games. But then they lost to the Flyers in 5. Philadelphia can just as easily have their dreams shattered by a better hockey team.
On paper, this matchup looks lopsided. 670 The Score's Dan Bernstein compared the Flyers to the 1985 New England Patriots, in the sense that they are basically a sacrificial lamb for their dominant opponent (in that case, the Chicago Bears). I am hesitant to go that far. I think the Flyers are a better team than the local Chicago media is giving them credit for, but there are glaring reasons why the new hockey fan (like Bernstein) would point out such lopsidedness.
First of all, the Flyers were essentially a .500 team in the regular season. They finished with a 41-35-6 record, good for 7th place in the East. The Flyers' point total of 88 would have put them in 12th place in the Western Conference. Chicago finished with 24 more points than the Flyers, which is likely one of the largest point differences between Finals teams in NHL history.
While the regular season numbers favor the Hawks, they might not mean as much as we think. Strange things happen in hockey. Once the playoffs start, things can change drastically, and the Flyers are a perfect example of that. In hockey more than any other sport, matchups and roster combinations can change everything on a dime. It looks as though everything is clicking for the Flyers, and that makes them a completely different team than the one that only won 41 games in the regular season. They found their groove at the right time and have earned their spot in the Stanley Cup Finals.
Goaltending is another reason to take the Flyers' regular season record with a grain of salt.
The Flyers were one of the few teams in the NHL with as many goaltending questions as the Hawks in the regular season. Ray Emery, Brian Boucher, and former Hawk Michael Leighton all started at least 28 games a piece. This instability between the pipes played a role in why the talented Flyers underachieved as a team.
In the playoffs, it has been a different story in Philadelphia. Brian Boucher was solid until a knee injury sidelined him on May 11th, and Leighton has been even better since taking over. Leighton owns a 6-1-0 record with a 1.45 GAA and .948 Save % in the playoffs.
The 24-point difference between these two teams in the regular season should stir confidence for the Hawks, but not too much. Just ask the Washington Capitals how they feel about regular season achievements.
If there is one thing we know heading into this series, it's that the Flyers haven't seen the type of offensive firepower they will face against the Hawks. The Flyers have faced New Jersey, Boston, and Montreal thus far; those three teams had the three lowest regular season scoring outputs of the 16 teams that qualified for the playoffs. Of the three, New Jersey scored the most goals: 222. How many did the Hawks score? 271. (Thanks to "MikitasHelmet" on IHN for pointing out that info)
I know, I know, I just said the regular season doesn't mean squat. The 7th seed is four wins from a Cup, after all. But 82 games is a pretty strong sample size for scoring ability. Even if you don't want to look at the regular season at all, just look at the rosters and what the Hawks have done in the past two series'. The Canucks and Sharks had no answer for the Hawks' offense. They scored on deflections, screens, breakaways, and every way in between.
It will be in the Flyers' best interest to slow the game down as much as they can. They certainly aren't Nashville-slow, but they also aren't fast enough to beat the Hawks at an end to end game.
There will be many key matchups in this series, but the one everyone will be pointing to is the Flyers' top defenseman Chris Pronger against the Hawks' top line of Kane, Toews, and Byfuglien.
The 88-19-33 combination has been unstoppable. Toews is the favorite for the Conn Smythe trophy and Buff had three game winning goals against San Jose. Unfortunately, if there is anyone that can slow them down, it's Pronger.
Chicago will hate Chris Pronger by this time next week. I'm not just talking about the team, but the entire city as well. He is big, he looks strange when he skates, he has a reputation as a dirty player, and most of all...he's very good. This is Pronger's third appearance in a Stanley Cup Final, all with different teams. The guy knows how to win.
Pronger will take the ice every time the Toews line does, if Flyers' coach Peter Laviolette can help it. The Flyers will likely try and force the Hawks into a dump and chase game, which makes Dustin Byfuglien a huge factor in this series. If he can win puck battles against Pronger and other Flyers' defensemen, it will allow Kane and Toews to be productive in the offensive zone.
On the other end of the ice, the Hawks have to worry about several Flyers forwards who can score. The top line of Simon Gagne, Mike Richards, and Jeff Carter are a scoring threat every time they touch the ice. Danny Briere and Claude Giroux have been huge in the playoffs as well, tallying 18 and 17 playoff points respectively.
Quenneville will likely put the Dave Bolland line on the Gagne/Richards/Carter line, considering Bolland's success against the top lines of Vancouver and San Jose. Logic tells us that Bolland will find success again, but that isn't always how it works.
It will once again take a team effort that includes back-checking forwards and smart plays by defensemen to duplicate the performance vs. San Jose.
If the Flyers are looking for a specific way to play the Hawks, they should study film of the Nashville series. A Predators team that is not as skilled as Philadelphia gave the Hawks all they could handle. Every game was a struggle, and the Hawks were thirteen seconds away from going down 3-2 in the series.
Flyers fans might not like to call their team "grindy", but that doesn't mean that they shouldn't try to grind it out in this series. That is the only way to beat the Hawks, especially when they are playing this well.
Overall, the one thing Hawks fans should realize heading into this series is that this team is still four wins away. Winning the Western Conference was amazing, and Sunday's victory will be remembered for a very long time, but the ultimate goal has not been reached yet.
In 2006, the city of Chicago was so thrilled by the Bears winning the NFC Championship that most seemed to forget that one win was still needed for a title. Even after the loss, the consensus was that the team would be back and better than ever in 2007. We all know what has happened since then. I'm not saying the Hawks will be the same way, but looking back, that Bears team can teach Chicago sports fans a lesson: Never assume anything.
Don't assume the Hawks have the Stanley Cup won until Jonathan Toews is skating a lap with it over his head. Don't assume this Hawks team will get back to the Finals again in the near future (even though all signs point to that happening). And no matter what, don't take this for granted. This is an incredible run that lifelong and new hockey fans should cherish every second of.
The 2009-2010 Chicago Blackhawks have an opportunity to join an elite class. With four more wins, they would join the 1985 Bears, the 90's Bulls, and the 2005 White Sox as Chicago legends.
All of that said, I'm predicting Hawks in six. The Flyers are good and they certainly have a chance to beat the Hawks, but I just can't see it. The Hawks are playing better than they have all season and are an extremely focused group. Jonathan Toews basically treated Sunday's win like it was two points in the regular season. He knows there is still work to do and that the ultimate goal hasn't been reached. Within the next two weeks, it will be.
All together, Chicago.... LET'S GO HAWKS!!
Follow me on Twitter @JTalarico328 for Hawks thoughts, news and updates