7. Philadelphia v. 2. Chicago
So, it has come to this: 30 teams plod through a rugged 82-game schedule in hopes of positioning themselves to making the playoffs. Sixteen teams have been whittled down to two, and those two will vie for Lord Stanley's Cup. In the case of the Western Conference champion Chicago Blackhawks, it's not a surprise that they're here, their first appearance in the finals since 1992. As for the Eastern Conference champion Philadelphia Flyers, making their first finals appearance since 1997, it appears to be a total shock as a seventh-seed making it all the way to the finals considering the two biggest names in the game (Washington's Alex Ovechkin and Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby) stand in the Flyers' way. But is it really a surprise? Prior to the season, the Flyers were among the favorites in the East before they plummeted in the standings and made the postseason on the second to last day. But the Flyers have had a star-studded and salary-packed lineup all season long. They've come together in these playoffs.
So how does NBC and Versus market teams that feature Michael Leighton (Flyers) and Antti Niemi (Blackhawks) in goal? Who would have predicted this at the start of the season? Certainly not me. But this series pairs two major-market squads going against one another that reached this point in many different ways, yet they also shared many common traits. The Flyers, who made history by becoming only the third team in NHL history to overcome an 0-3 series deficit in the conference semifinals against Boston, have imposed their will up front against all opponents while getting solid goaltending from both Brian Boucher (who is injured) and now Leighton, who blanked Montreal in the conference finals. Former Blue Chris Pronger is proving his value by playing 28-29 minutes per game on the blue line and captain Mike Richards is playing as if he is on a mission. Pronger will be in the Cup finals for the third time in five seasons (he won it with Anaheim in 2007) and Leighton will go up against the team he used to play for earlier in his career. The Flyers have won eight of nine games since that epic comeback against the Bruins and it's no coincidence that their level of play flew through the roof since the return from injuries from both Simon Gagne and Jeff Carter, especially Gagne. The Hawks, without a Cup since 1961, have done it with ... well ... everything. Start from the back: Niemi has been brilliant, especially in the series sweep over San Jose when he grossly outplayed Nabokov. Chicago's D-men have not overwhelmed but have done what they've done all year -- play rock-steady and simply getting the job done. No ifs, ands or buts about it. Captain Jonathan Toews is doing it all ... and leading the league in playoff points. Linemates Patrick Kane and Dustin Byfuglien has made this trio lethal. Maybe the best move by former Blues coach Joel Quenneville was converting 'Big Buff' into a forward. He was a terror in that series against the Sharks. And there's Marian Hossa, the big free agent pick-up for Chicago who is in his third straight Cup final series ... and the bad omen for the Blackhawks is he is 0 for 2.
The areas around the goal that Byfuglien was successful in won't be as smooth this go-around. The Flyers D-men will be punishing, they'll bruise and batter anyone around their net. So the Hawks, only if they want to pay the price, will try and impose some will in the crease areas. I don't know if Chicago's D-men can have the same success against the Flyer forwards, who will do everything to make life miserable for Niemi just as they did for the Canadiens' Jaroslav Halak.
Many of these series thus far, particularly in the East, have gone against the grain. Upsets have been a common theme. In the West, it's been par for the course. The top guns have flexed their muscles, and thus, here is why you have the Hawks on the cusp of raising Lord Stanley. I think this is going to be a knock-em-out, drag-em-out series and success will be met with a price. There will be bruised and battered bodies when all is said and done. While it wouldn't surprise me to see the Flyers win it, I like the Hawks here in seven. Chicago's resume getting here (series wins over an underrated Nashville, Vancouver and San Jose) is more imposing to me than that of Philadelphia (New Jersey, Boston and Montreal). Blues fans ought to love this cause I've been so wrong here in the last couple rounds, but I say there will be a big party on Michigan Ave and Coach Q will get the best of Prongs in the battle of former Blues.
BLACKHAWKS IN 7