Friday, May 28, 2010
STANLEY CUP FINALS PREVIEW
A tale of two cities, of two teams, of two historic franchises long overdue for some silverware. The Blackhawks rode the high road to get here, winning 52 games, claiming the 2nd seed in the West, and going 12-4 in the playoffs, rolling through their competition. The Flyers, took the low road. They squeezed in on the last day of the season by the slimmest of margins: a shootout goal. They're 12-5 in the playoffs, but were once on the brink, down 0-3 to the Bruins, before surging back, then thumping Montreal.
The Blackhawks haven't won the Cup since 1961. The Flyers since '75.
Philly's playoff run has been, in a word: compelling. They lose Jeff Carter, but are able to beat Brodeur and the Devils in 5 games. They fall behind Boston 3-0, even losing their goalie, then comeback and win the series in the Bruins' ice. Then they face the giant slayers from Montreal, who could beat Washington and Pittsburgh, bet couldn't handle the Flyers. Not even close.
But I'll burst your bubble, Philly. The playoffs are about weaknesses more than they're about strengths. The Flyers have a balanced offense (10th in scoring) with multiple threats (7 players with 4+ goals this postseason). They also boast 4 stalwart defenseman, including the guy with a triathlete's endurance: Chris Pronger. Where's the weakness? Goaltending. Despite their solid defense, the Flyers were 15th in goals allowed this season.
But in the playoffs they have the best GAA, an impressive 2.12! Have Leighton and Boucher stepped up in the postseason? Yes. But that's not the total story. Certainly both have been solid, but they've also benefited from their opponents' lack of offensive prowess.
The Devils were 19th in the NHL in goals scored. The Canadiens 23rd. The Bruins 29th. The Devils had Kovalchuk and Parise. The Bruins' offense was spearheaded by a 42 year old in Mark Recchi and a scrap-heap acquisition in Miroslav Satan. The Canadiens had Mike Cammalleri, and nothing else.
Chicago had the 3rd best offense in the NHL's regular season, averaged 3.31 goals per game in the post-season thus far (behind only Vancouver and Detroit).
They get offense from multiple players, just like Philadelphia. Six Blackhawks have 4+ postseason goals. Six Blackhawks had 20+ regular season goals.
Moreover, Chicago will be playing with home ice advantage. Philadelphia was 17-21-3 on the road during the regular season, and 5-4 during the playoffs. Chicago was 29-8-4 at home this season. But they've actually been better on the road in the postseason, with a spectacular 7-1 record away from Chicago.
Now what's Chicago's weakness? It might just be goaltending too. Antti Niemi's had an impressive 2.33 GAA in the postseason, but his SV% is much less staggering, at .921, it's 5th among playoff goalies with 4+ starts.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that there will be goals. Both teams have good offenses and exploitable goalies. Chicago's power-play wasn't very good in the regular season (17.7%), but it's been decent in the postseason (22.6%). Then again, both teams are very good penalty killers. (85.0% for Chicago and 83.0% for Philly in the regular season, 86.6% and 87% for them, respectively, in the playoffs).
So who has the edge? Chicago. While Philadelphia's Top-4 D-men have been outstanding this postseason, they've yet to face a team that can roll 2 to 3 good scoring lines. Moreover, Chicago can keep possession of the puck, wearing out those 4 defensemen.
My gut wants to say Chicago in 5. But I'll temper that with some pessimism and say Chicago in 6.
CONN SMYTHE WATCH:
Antti Niemi, G, CHI - 2.33 GAA, .921 SV%, 2 shutouts
Michael Leighton, G, PHI - 1.45 GAA, .948 SV%, 3 shutouts, 6-1 record
Jonathan Toews, C, CHI - 7 goals, 19 assists, +4, 3 GWG
Mike Richards, C, PHI - 6 goals, 15 assists, +6
Patrick Kane, RW, CHI - 7 goals, 13 assists
Danny Briere, C, PHI - 9 goals, 9 assists, +4, 4 GWG
Claude Giroux, RW, PHI - 8 goals, 9 assists, +10
Patrick Sharp, C, CHI - 7 goals, 9 assists
Chris Pronger, D, PHI - 4 G, 10 A, 26 hits, 51 blocks, like 30:00 per game
Brent Seabrook, D, CHI - 3 G, 6 A, +8, 60 hits, 41 blocks
Dustin Byfuglien, RW, CHI - 8 G, 2 A, 4 GWG, 56 hits