The first game or two of the Stanley Cup final often involves two teams getting a feel for each other. Not having met more than twice (and often only once) throughout the season, the Western and Eastern Conference champions have only film, rather than experience, to determine their opponent’s style of play.
In the first two games of this year’s final, the Blackhawks dictated the pace of the game – namely, fast. Faster than the Flyers could keep up with.
In Games 3 and 4, the Flyers controlled the play with their forecheck. Rather than the typical 2-1-2 Philadelphia has utilized since Peter Laviolette took over as coach in December, the Flyers went with a more conservative, yet effective 1-2-2 trap.
When the Blackhawks were trying to break the puck out of the zone, the Flyers sent one man between the two Hawk defenders. This prevented the Hawks’ D-men from passing the puck back and forth like many teams do. Instead, they passed the puck straight up the ice, forcing a forward to retrieve the pass amidst up to four Flyers. This caused the Blackhawks to turn the puck over more than they desired, leading to numerous Flyers goals and ultimately, two wins.
“Give them credit, they’re coming hard on the forecheck,” said Chicago’s Brent Sopel after the Game 4 loss. “They’re relentless and they’re working hard. We have to be a lot smarter. We need to support each other in our own end and we have to stop turning the puck over. They have a great transition game and when we turn the puck over, we play right into their game.”
Added teammate Patrick Sharp: “They’re a good team. They’re very deep. They don’t give you much defensively. They seem to plug things up and they do a good job of obstructing and getting in your way in your line with the puck.”
But in the day off between Games 4 and 5, the Blackhawks shored up their strategy. It paid off when they dominated the majority of Game 5 at the United Center, giving them the inside track to secure the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1961.
So was Chicago’s Game 5 win a result of the Flyers playing badly or the Blackhawks playing well? As usual, it was a little of both.
The Flyers’ forechecker, instead of staying deep in the zone between the two Chicago defenders, stayed high in the zone, in front of the defender with the puck and allowed Chicago’s defensemen to pass it between them and cycle the puck in the defensive zone. This cycling caused an extra Flyer or two to join the original forechecker. When this happened, it opened up a space in the neutral zone that led to numerous Chicago odd-man rushes.
“I still thought our ‘D’ did some good things,” said Chicago coach Joel Quenneville after the Game 5 victory. “They had a pretty good gap most of the game.”
Added Hawks defenseman Duncan Keith: “I think it just starts with moving our feet. Everyone was skating. When we stand still and try to make plays, they do a good job of shutting people down. They’re so good at playing that checking role. But when you have five guys who are skating and moving their feet, it makes things a little bit easier.”
The Flyers have shown success when forcing the Hawks to go north-south and have failed when the Hawks are going east-west. With no room for error, the technique the Flyers use to forecheck in Game 6 will determine if they return to Chicago tied at three or skate back to the dressing room with nothing to show for their impressive playoff run.