The rough and tumble Philadelphia Flyers will make life miserable for the speedy, skilled and favoured Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup final—provided the referees let them.
That’s Don Cherry’s take on the matchup for NHL supremacy, which begins Saturday in the Windy City featuring two teams that play contrasting styles of hockey.
The Flyers, led by tenacious captain Mike Richards, are a physically imposing group that often straddles the line between clean and dirty in using its size to contain, wear down and punish opponents.
The Blackhawks, on the other hand, are led by the dynamic duo of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane and use their off-the-charts quickness and talent to skate around their rivals and pick them apart.
Whether brawn can negate finesse in the best-of-seven series may depend on the stripes.
“I think it’s going to be how the refereeing is going to be,” Cherry, the CBC’s famed Hockey Night in Canada commentator, said during a conference call Thursday.
“If they start calling penalties like they did against San Jose (during the Western Conference final versus Chicago), it’s really going to be tough on Philadelphia, I’ll tell you that. I’m not saying letting it go, but if they let them play hockey, it’s in Philadelphia’s favour because let’s face it, they are a lot tougher.”
That toughness is why Cherry firmly believes the final will go a lot longer than many oddmakers predict it will. The Blackhawks were impressive in series wins against Nashville, Vancouver and San Jose en route to the final, but none are as physical as the Flyers.
“They’ve never met anyone in the playoffs so far that plays like Philly, not that they’re afraid or anything like that, but Richards takes no prisoners, they’ve never played a guy that hits like that, and (the Flyers) are a mean club,” said Cherry. “This is going to go on a lot longer than people think because on one side, Philly hasn’t played anybody with the speed and talent (of the Blackhawks), but on the other side, Chicago has not played anybody that takes no prisoners like Philly.
“It’s going to be interesting to see who survives.”
The other key tipping point in the series, according to Cherry, is the goaltending.
Chicago’s Antti Niemi and Philadelphia’s Michael Leighton are both unheralded and neither was expected to backstop his team this far.
Niemi, a 26-year-old rookie, wrestled the starting job away from Cristobal Huet during the regular season and has been the only true question mark in an otherwise stacked Blackhawks lineup.
Leighton, a 29-year-old journeyman, took over in Game 5 of Philadelphia’s second-round series versus Boston after Brian Boucher was injured and has proceeded to go 6-1 since. He helped complete the rally from a 3-0 series deficit against the Bruins and then stymied the Canadiens in the Eastern Conference final.
This is uncharted territory for both.
“Leighton is my guy and everybody is waiting for Niemi … to falter and he hasn’t,” said Cherry. “It’s really funny, two guys that they thought (were) their weak spot, Philadelphia has always had a weak spot (in goal), and everybody’s been saying about Chicago, they got a good team but their goaltender is suspect, and here they are in the final.
“I think it’s going to be which one falters.”
More certain is the buzz the series is generating south of the border, with teams from two big, traditional hockey markets matching up.
“It’s a lot better than sometimes when you hear if Nashville had won, and some other team like that, Columbus, they’d probably have committed suicide (at the NHL),” said Cherry. “But this is a dream for the National Hockey League.
“Philly, high profile, Chicago, they’re just jumping for joy with Chicago, so they’re happy with the way things are right now, couldn’t have been better.”