CHICAGO – The NHL got its post-season marketing campaign right: History will be made during this Stanley Cup final.
Either the Chicago Blackhawks will end the league’s longest championship drought at 49 years or the Philadelphia Flyers will become the lowest regular season finisher ever to lift the trophy.
It’s a compelling matchup between teams that feature a similar cast of characters but took very different paths to the final. The Flyers and Blackhawks both hope to be aggressive right out of the gate starting with Game 1 at the United Center on Saturday (CBC, 8 p.m. ET).
“We’ll have to play consistent hockey and play them for 60 minutes and maybe it takes seven games,” Flyers captain Mike Richards said Friday. “If you look on paper, the teams are very evenly matched. Very evenly built, I think—same sort of design of players too.
“So it’s just who is going to play the most consistent for the longest.”
Consistency was not a hallmark of this Flyers season.
Great things were expected coming out of training camp but they failed to live up to expectations and needed to win a shootout on the final day of the regular season just to qualify for the playoffs.
The team started to take flight in the spring, putting together an 8-1 record since falling behind Boston 3-0 in the second round. Richards says the playoff atmosphere allowed the Flyers to shield themselves from outside distractions and put their sole focus on playing hockey.
And they’ve grown closer in the process.
“I think through all the trials and tribulations we went through, we’ve become a very strong team,” said Flyers coach Peter Laviolette. “It’s actually probably our greatest strength right now—the guys in the room and what they believe in and their belief in each other.
“There’s been so many times when we’ve been down and out and we fought back and we pushed back. It’s not really about one moment that’s turned us around. I think it’s just about a series of events that’s made us really strong and allowed us to be here in this opportunity.”
The Blackhawks have spent the past three years building towards this moment. Led by young stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, they’ve been pegged as a Stanley Cup contender since making it to the Western Conference final last spring.
Chicago demonstrated this season why it deserved to be considered a great team in waiting. They eliminated three 100-point squads on the way to the Stanley Cup—Nashville, Vancouver and San Jose.
“The players really worked well together,” said coach Joel Quenneville. “I think last year’s lessons of what happened during the playoffs and at the end of the playoffs is something they’ve applied this year. I think that’s a big reason why where we’re here today.”
The Stanley Cup could very well be decided in goal.
There aren’t too many hockey fans who were familiar with Philadelphia’s Michael Leighton or Chicago’s Antti Niemi at the start of the season. While each has been a star performer so far in the post-season, they’re about to face a whole new level of pressure.
It could be felt before the series even officially got underway.
“For me, it’s getting harder to fall asleep at night when your mind starts racing and thinking about things,” said Leighton.
Another key matchup is likely to be waged at the edge of Leighton’s crease.
Bulky Blackhawks forward Dustin Byfuglien—all six-foot-four and 257 pounds of him—has earned a spot on the team’s top line with Kane and Toews during these playoffs because of his willingness to battle in front of the net. He’s likely to see a lot of Flyers defenceman Chris Pronger, a proven playoff performer with a mean streak.
Pronger seemed pretty unfazed by the prospect.
“John Leclair was pretty big,” said the 35-year-old veteran. “I could go down the list of guys who were pretty big in this league. If you want me to break down my credentials, I’ll do that for you. But maybe we’ll just wait for the games and see what’s going to happen. How about that?”
The two captains will also take a turn in the spotlight.
Toews and Philadelphia’s Mike Richards played together on a successful line at the Olympics but only one of them will add the Stanley Cup to the gold medal he won in Vancouver. Comparisons between the two come easily—they’re both highly-competitive players who played a major role in helping turn around their franchise.
They’ve also each won championships at every level. Both will try to draw on that.
“You don’t want to feel the feeling of disappointment if you lose, so you work hard and you learn kind of what it takes to win and how to overcome what your opponent is throwing at you,” said Toews. “All that experience does help you, but this is going to be the ultimate battle.”
It has all the makings of a tremendous series.
Fans in both cities have been waiting a long time for the Stanley Cup—Philadelphia hasn’t won since 1975 while the Blackhawks haven’t lifted the Cup since 1961. Few would have predicted this final two months ago but it makes a lot of sense now.
“It’s unfinished business,” said Flyers forward Simon Gagne. “Yeah, we are happy with what we accomplished so far. But we still want more. We want the big trophy at the end.”