After 4 full days without any hockey (though several stories such this one, this one, and this one have certainly held the attention of the hockey world this week), we’re finally less than 4 hours away from the start of the Stanley Cup Final from the United Center in Chicago. Two franchises steeped in tradition will be looking to end lengthy championship droughts. And while I’m brimming with enthusiasm at the prospect of tuning in tonight to see two of the best teams in the NHL (yeah, I said it), I’ve found myself reverting to behavior not all that unfamiliar: rooting for no one. Such is the curse of the objective perspective, I suppose.
There’s (probably) no possible way I can bring myself to actually cheer for the Philadelphia Flyers in the Stanley Cup Final. No way, no how, no chance. Period. They’ve never been my cup of tea, from Bobby Clarke to Dave Schultz, from Mike Keenan to Rick Tocchet, from Eric Lindros to Jeremy Roenick, they’ve been a team of players and coaches I despise and one of the NHL’s franchises I love to loathe the most. As a Leafs fan, the Flyers sealed Toronto’s fate in the sixth game of the second round of the 2004 NHL playoffs….and needless to say, the Leafs haven’t sniffed the aroma of the postseason since. Yeah, that one still stings, and I’m still a bit bitter, considering that (short-lived) playoff run is one of the few joyful Leafs moments for this Toronto fan in recent memory (though this one ranks highly as well).
That being said, I must say I admire the heart, soul, and sheer determination of this current Flyers team. They underachieved all season long but turned it on and found their groove just in the nick of time (otherwise, we could well be talking about the New York Rangers being in this same position….well, then again, maybe not). This team has way too much talent on the roster to be dismissed. I’ve come to admire Chris Pronger over the last couple of seasons, and he showed his true value as a leader on-the-ice (despite the constant scuttlebutt early in the season hovering over an alleged dispute between Pronger and captain Mike Richards, but it appears they’ve resolved any alleged differences). He’s a lock as a Hall of Famer, and at age 35, he was a legitimate Norris Trophy candidate (which validated my choice of Pronger as my first D-man in all 4 of my fantasy hockey leagues), and helped to foster the development of blueline partner Matt Carle into a potent power-play point-man. Meanwhile, Richards is one of the most well-rounded forwards in the league - though the numerous injuries in Philly more or less forced the captain to focus more towards crashing the net this year than defending it (hence, no Selke nod this year). The mix of veteran forwards (Jeff Carter, Simon Gagne, Danny Briere, Scott Hartnell, amongst others) and young guns (Claude Giroux, James van Riemsdyk, Ville Leino) have gelled together into quite a formidable unit at just the right time. Plus, the recent Achilles’ Heel of Philly’s playoff runs – goaltending – has become an asset this year, thanks to Michael Leighton (with his playoff leading 1.45 GAA and .948 SV%) and Brian Boucher. Of course, they’ve made history in the process (sorry B’s fans, but it’s got to be mentioned….just use that 1st round pick this year to cushion the blow).
On the other side of the ledger: the Chicago Blackhawks, a franchise that as recently as three full seasons ago was rendered irrelevant both in the Windy City and the rest of the hockey world. What a renaissance this Original Six team has undertaken! The Hawks advanced to the Western Conference Finals last year in their first playoff run in 7 seasons (and only their 2nd playoff berth in 11 seasons), and have taken the next step by advancing to their first Stanley Cup Final since 1992 (when leading scorer Patrick Kane was only 3 ½). The upside of Chicago’s dry spell in the 2000’s was an abundance of lottery draft picks which the Hawks used to build this team into the powerhouse it is today (sound similar, Penguins and Avalanche fans?). Kane and captain Jonathan Toews are amongst the NHL’s elite, and are the core of a deep group of forwards who’ve had a terrific postseason (esp. Dustin Byfuglien and Dave Bolland). The shut-down pair of defensemen Brent Seabrook and Norris-nominated Duncan Keith anchor one of the league’s best defensive teams (2.48 goals allowed/game, tied for 5th best this season). Antti Niemi came from nowhere (well, that’s not true, try from Pelicans Lahti) to steal the Hawks top goaltending job from Cristobal Huet this year, and has silenced the critics who said he’d crumble under the pressure of the playoffs.
As great of a story as the resurgence of Chicago hockey has been, I just can’t bring myself to jump on the bandwagon. Again it wasn’t that long ago when the masses steered clear of the United Center in droves. Proof positive that no matter how strong the traditions and the market are for ANY team, American sports fans want to watch a winner. Not surprisingly, attendance at Blackhawks games has risen dramatically over the last three seasons in concurrence with their rapid ascent in the standings. Translation: Chicago’s got enough bandwagon fans already (every winning team does, no need to read any more into that), and they sure don’t need one more. Besides, following one O6 team with a prolonged Cup drought is enough for me. Safe to say I’m not too thrilled about the prospect of the Hawks ending their 49-year absence from Lord Stanley’s graces, considering who’ll own the longest stint without the silver chalice should Chicago win (though most everyone already seems to think the Leafs had already do own that distinction, judging from the continuous chants of “1967”).
I’m certainly not about to make any predictions on this series, considering my instincts are crap. But I’d say this has the potential to be an unbelievable series that could go 7 (You want history to be made? That’s what Game 7’s were made for….but, let’s not rush ourselves), and that’s what I’m hoping for. I’ll leave the analysis of this series to those more qualified than myself who have scrutinized every possible angle of this matchup. Puck Daddy has done an excellent job breaking down all the ins-and-outs of the Flyers and Blackhawks (especially on the must-read between the young captains Richards and Toews, both with quite a list of accomplishments in their hockey careers). These two teams are so evenly matched, it’s eerie (regardless of their conference seedings).
No matter what of the outcome of the 2010 Stanley Cup Final is, at least two players will join an elite group this year. Only three players in hockey history have won a Stanley Cup and an Olympic Gold Medal in the same season. Both teams feature players from Team Canada’s triumph in Vancouver this past February – Richards and Pronger for Philly; Keith, Seabrook, and Toews for Chicago. (Bonus points if anyone can name the three who have already turned the trick.)
History will be made, indeed.