Friday, May 28, 2010

Flyers vs. Blackhawks: Stanley Cup Finals Breakdown

Four more wins. I still can't believe we've gotten to the point where all that stands between the Flyers and history is four more wins. After all of the tumult this season, from the coach firing to the slew of injuries to the need for a shootout win to even get into the playoffs, who would have thought the Flyers would be just four wins away from winning their first cup in 35 years? Of course, the Flyers still have quite a mountain to climb given that those wins are going to have to come on the biggest stage in hockey against the best team they have faced in the playoffs. While nearly all of the experts have sided with the Blackhawks, let's take a closer look at the two teams in the Stanley Cup Finals and see if the Flyers have what it takes to prove the experts wrong.

Offense: The Flyers appear to have met their match at forward for the first time in the playoffs. In every other series, the Flyers have had a major advantage in the depth department at forward. Not so with Chicago, who rolls out some serious firepower in the form of four players with 7 or more goals in the playoffs. We all know about the kids like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and a red-hot Dustin Byfuglien but the Blackhawks also boast other big scorers like former Flyer Patrick Sharp and perennial Stanley Cup runner-up Marian Hossa. This group of forwards is going to test the Flyers defense in a way it hasn't seen yet in the playoffs.

As for the Flyers forwards, they got even stronger with the returns of Jeff Carter and Ian Laperriere. If Danny Briere, Mike Richards and Claude Giroux can continue their hot streaks, the Flyers should be in good shape up front. Of course, the Chicago defense has been known to stifle the top lines of the opposition so it could be up to someone like Scott Hartnell or Arron Asham to create a spark. While the Blackhawks forwards are the bigger names, the Flyers forwards can hang with anyone in the league, so I call these two teams even at forward.

Defense: Team defense has been the Flyers strength this entire postseason. Led by playoff stud Chris Pronger, the Flyers seem to have found another gear and have shut down whatever the opposition has thrown at them. Much the same can be said about the Blackhawks, too, but there is one difference between these two teams: the Flyers only go 4 deep while Chicago goes 5 deep. The Flyers have been making a regular habit out of hiding Ryan Parent and Lukas Krajicek when at all possible, something that could wear down their top 4 d-men. Chicago, on the other hand, has 5 defensemen that they trust to play 18 or more minutes per game and all have a plus/minus of at least 3. Because of their tremendous depth, the Blackhawks get the edge on defense.

Goaltending: The Flyers have what is perceived to be the weaker goalie heading into every round and yet they always seem to have the better goaltending when all is said and done. While both are in their first playoff runs, Antii Niemi has had to come up with more big saves in the playoffs than Michael Leighton. While Leighton's numbers are much better than Niemi's, he is a product of the Flyers system rather than a goaltender who has had to stand on their head. Based solely on pure talent, Niemi is the better goalie, giving the Blackhawks the advantage in net.

Special Teams: It's hardly shocking that the two teams with the best special teams play in the playoffs have made it to the Stanley Cup Finals. Look for some interesting matchups here, especially on the Chicago power play, where the Hawks have been stellar and the Flyers have been monsters on the penalty kill. Something will have to give in the series but, for now, these two teams are even on special teams.

Looking at the two teams on paper, the Blackhawks are the better hockey team. They are loaded with skill players at every position and just swept a very good Sharks team to get to the Finals. Why, then, am I picking the Flyers to win the Cup in 7 games? Because, as they have proven time and time again in the playoffs this year, the Flyers are better than the sum of their parts. Their defense, which at times during the regular season looked terrible, always seems to be in the right place at the right time. Their offense, which was spotty and inconsistent all year long, is getting contributions up and down the lineup. Whether Peter Laviolette is simply pushing all the right buttons or they have just found another gear, the Flyers have been rising to the occasion in every round and showing they are willing to do whatever it takes to win the Cup. It's going to be a big task to get past the Blackhawks but when the Flyers have met every challenge in the playoffs so far, why should we think they won't meet this one?

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