Flyers will hang tough but expect ’Hawks to prevail

Well, I’m still wiping the egg off my face.
After extolling the virtues of the Montreal Canadiens in last week’s column, the Habs went down fairly passively to the Philadelphia Flyers.
Not to discredit the Flyers’ performance in the Eastern Conference final but if the Flyers are able to conquer the Chicago Blackhawks and bring Lord Stanley’s Cup to the City of Brotherly Love for the first time since 1975, they at least should send Montreal a fruit basket for doing the conference’s heavy lifting.
After all, the Habs had to take down top-seeded Washington and defending champion Pittsburgh to earn the right to face Philly.
The Flyers, meanwhile, had a fairly easy time with punchless New Jersey before staging an epic comeback over the underrated but ultimately hapless Boston Bruins.
Still, Montreal either was going to enter the series on an emotional high after winning all five elimination games they had faced in coming back from deficits in both series, which is what I was counting on, or they’d be bagged from going the limit in both series against elite opponents.
With goalie Jaroslav Halak playing lights-out coming in and my admitted obsession with numbers (I make Jim Carrey’s character in “The Number 23,” or at least the film’s trailers, seem normal), I thought Montreal was a surefire Stanley Cup finalist.
They just had to do it in their real 100th season, didn’t they?
Splat.
Well, out with the past and in with the future. And that future belongs to Philly, not Montreal.
For all the talk about why no one should be surprised that Philadelphia’s second-round opponent, the Bruins, won seven of their first nine playoff games before crashing and burning, Philadelphia had flown under the radar, as well.
The Broad Street Bullies are only two years removed from an Eastern Conference final appearance, and last year’s crew was dealt a tough first-round match-up with the Penguins, which they ultimately lost in six games.
It was hard to pick against Philadelphia in the first round this year, but tougher to bet against Devils’ goaltending legend Martin Brodeur. That didn’t exactly work out so well.
There’s a lot to like about the Flyers’ squad. Captain Mike Richards of Kenora has been excellent, leading the team with 21 points, while a resurgent Danny Briere had chipped in nine goals.
Claude Giroux’s eight tallies, meanwhile, already are half of his entire season total, as he’s been a force to be reckoned with.
The Flyers appear to be set on the back end, too, as Dryden’s Chris Pronger (four goals, 10 assists, and almost 29 minutes per game) has had an outstanding post-season while the constantly overlooked Kimmo Timonen has found his groove.
Throw in Matt Carle and Braydon Coburn (+8 and +7, respectively) and that’s a blueline with some big, talented guys who should provide some excellent opposition to Chicago’s skilled forwards.
The biggest part of the story, though, has been Philadelphia’s goaltending. Usually a punchline, the Flyers’ netminding carousel has come up with a winner at every stop.
Ray Emery, the starter coming out of training camp, was decent before he was shut down for the season with an injury.
Brian Boucher, who came out of nowhere 10 years ago to lead Philadelphia to the conference final, loudly answered the “Where Are They Now?” call with a .915 save percentage and 2.33 goals against average before he went down in the series against Boston.
And then came Michael Leighton, who has stopped nearly 95 percent of the shots he’s seen, a career suitcase who constantly buzzed the waiver wire before he stuck in his second tour of duty in Philadelphia.
When the Stanley Cup final starts on Saturday, the 29-year-old will have a chance to get revenge on the first team that gave up on him: Chicago.
While Philadelphia isn’t exactly your average No. 7 seed, the Blackhawks should be entering the series as pretty significant favourites.
Jonathan Toews has been superhuman in the post-season with 26 points while Duncan Keith, who began his minor hockey days here, has been logging big minutes, ranking behind only workhorses Pronger and Boston’s Zdeno Chara.
Of course, the couple of shifts he gave up after reacting to losing seven teeth in Sunday’s Game 4 clincher against San Jose will affect those numbers slightly.
Mix in power forward Dustin Byfuglien, who has established himself as a top-flight power forward who also kicks in when the chips are down. Four of his eight goals so far have been game-winners.
His battles with Pronger and the rest of the Flyers’ defence should be some of the series’ top individual showdowns.
Meanwhile, Antti Niemi hasn’t been flashy in goal, but he’s been serviceable. If the big line of Toews, Byfuglien, and Patrick Kane keep scoring, and the supporting cast, outside of Dave Bolland and Patrick Sharp, starts putting up a few more points, then that’s probably all Niemi will need to be.
He won’t have to steal many games; he’ll just have to not lose them.
If I played into the same trap I fell into with the Canadiens, I’d say the Hawks would lose this series only to rebound next year, breaking an even 50-year drought.
Nope, 49 will be fine.
Not to interfere with the hockey gods or anything, but realistically, the only question remaining seems to be which of Keith’s three childhood communities will host his day with the Cup—Fort Frances, Winnipeg, or Penticton, B.C.?
The Flyers will give the young ’Hawks a run for their money, though Chicago ultimately will take the series in six games.
My overall record, with unofficial conference finals picks (Chicago and Montreal) is 9-5. I went 6-2 in Round 1, 2-2 in Round 2, and 1-1 in Round 3.
Three of those wins were from picking Chicago while three of those losses were from picking against Philadelphia, so either the ’Hawks will high-five me for my consistent faith or the Flyers will punch me in the face for my consistent pigheadedness.
We’ll see when things kick off on Saturday night.
• • •
I never thought I’d see myself saying this, but I’ve actually been glad that games with epic overtime periods seem to be a thing of the past.
Through three rounds this season, only two games have extended past a single overtime while just one did in 2009.
A sidebar to that is that each of those three was played in the Eastern time zone, meaning that even into the third extra frame, it still was a reasonable hour here in the Central time zone.
Back when multiple overtimes were common (five in 2006, eight in 2007 and three in 2008), I steadfastly would push that these were the games that made the post-season what it was, and hey, the more, the merrier.
This was the definition of parity—two teams playing so evenly for so long that they couldn’t settle the score until the wee hours of the morning.
I don’t know what it was (perhaps that an 8 a.m. job is different than 8:00 a.m. class) but getting these games wrapped up at a reasonable hour is a good thing. Maybe because players aren’t occasionally slogging away three games’ worth of energy in a night, play has been higher on average.
Every game in the this year’s Cup final is slated for a 7 p.m. CDT start, so if one of the games goes to three or four overtimes, the concluding finish still will come before my bedtime, and I can deal with that.
It’s the games in California and Vancouver that especially cause the problem, but if I’m up for a challenge, staying up for one of those games during the post-season is just one of those fun things to do every so often.
But if numbers return to 2007 levels, maybe going to 4-on-4 overtime after one extra period is the answer. A shootout just would be a tacky way to end a post-season game, but if the game became a little more wide open, then we might be onto something.
It’s hockey sacrilege to suggest any changes to the OT format, but if viewers feel inundated with extra hockey—not rewarded—it might be time to consider some tweaks.

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