The Stanley Cup Finals are only a day away, media day is over and we are getting antsy! We’ve already stated why the Blackhawks will win or lose, as well as the Flyers. We’ve already shared who the top 16 players to keep an eye on in the series are and yet we still can’t stop talking about the Cup. What on Earth can we do? Another draft of sorts? Absolutely.
By Peter Christian and Bryan Vickroy
This time, we’re drafting story lines. Yes, you read that right, story lines. We did another serpentine draft but this time we selected which story lines would be the most relevant to the series and it’s outcome. Simple enough, right?
(Note: We’re fully aware of how dorky this is, but it’s the Stanley Cup Finals and we’re excited, give us a break)
1. A Tale of two hot goaltenders
Antti Niemi and Michael Leighton were both brilliant in their respective Conference Finals match-up. But which goalie has the better chance to continue their success? Niemi was able to shut down the best team in the Western Conference and the league’s 4th best scoring team in the regular season. He was tested too. Niemi faced more than 40 shots twice against the Sharks. He’s on a roll right now and his confidence is definitely peaking.
On the other end is Michael Leighton who came in as a injury replacement for Brian Boucher in the Eastern Conference semis and has been on fire ever since. Throwing out his one loss (a 5-1 loss to Montreal), Leighton has 6 wins in 6.5 games, 6 goals allowed and 3 shut outs. That’s a hot goaltender. As good as Niemi has been, Leighton’s been better.
2. Does home ice advantage still exist?
Once upon a time, the NHL playoffs used to behave much as the NBA does today; home teams dominated, and most series rely on who gets the critical game 7 at home. That is no longer true. This postseason has seen an absurd number of teams look pathetic on home ice, causing many of them to be at home watching now.
The Blackhawks capitalized on San Jose’s failure to produce at home, and had the series all but wrapped up by the time they returned home. Philadelphia found a way to quiet the raucous atmosphere in Montreal and skate their way out of the east.
The home team needs to hold serve if they want to hoist the Cup. Chicago must come out strong, and not give Philly a chance to steal a game.
3. Too many men on the ice: the En Vogue penalty
How difficult is it to count to five, or perhaps watch for one person in a small crowd? Not very I say. Yet this postseason, multiple games have been won due to mental lapses, line change confusion, and the ensuing too many men on the ice penalty.
The league has decided to crackdown this postseason on the sloppy exchanges, and the Flyers benefited against Boston in their comeback. Some of the blame goes on the assistant coaches in charge of spitting out the next line, but mostly it’s the player’s fault. Not watching your man or trying to jump into a play too quick will cost your team two minutes, if not the game.
4. Immovable object vs. unstoppable force: Pronger vs. Toews
For Philadelphia the game plan of bringing in Chris Pronger has worked. Maybe the path was different than they envisioned but he’s anchored the team defensively, and stepped up the physicality the Flyers play with. His play as a shut down blue liner has been key to keeping Philly alive in the playoffs.
While defense has been key for Philly, in Chicago, it’s been the offense of Jonathan Toews. He’s been unstoppable, scoring points in about a million straight playoff games (13 actually, but close enough). Pronger and company have been able to hold the opposing team’s top scorer in check in each series, but Toews may be too tough to tame.
5. Philly Muscle vs. Chicago Speed
Both teams have taken their philosophy and run with it. Philadelphia has been the physical, defensive team flexing its muscle to intimidate their opponents and run them into the ground. Chicago, meanwhile, has been a team that has out-skated and out-hustled their opponents to every loose puck, errant pass and giant rebound. The style clash is sure to be apparent early on, but the longer the series goes the advantage will shift to Philadelphia.
6. The Fans: Crazed vs. Chic
In the heyday of the NHL, these two franchises optimized what a hockey fan was; loud, proud, informed, and in tune to the game. Over the years, the fan bases evolved into drastically different species.
Flyers fans became something of a cross between Barry Melrose and football (soccer to the layman) hooligans. Equally willing to drop knowledge and f-bombs, praise and punches. These are die-hards who live and breath with each save and shot, and understand the history of the Broad Street Bullies. They felt they could win the Cup all year, every year, and they could be proven right.
Blackhawks fans, on the other hand, almost became extinct. Poor management, poor performance, and success by other teams dropped the Blackhawks to the bottom of the Windy City food chain. A fresh approach and winning has filled the bandwagon to capacity now, making the Hawks “the cool thing” now.
Whichever team loses, and weathers any oncoming storms, and keeps its fans in the process, may win it all, and win some new hearts for good.
7. Winter Classic: Ticket to the Cup?
The Winter Classic is by far the best new thing in sports. Even the casual person will tune in to see hockey played au naturale. Interestingly enough, it’s also the best new way to get into the Stanley Cup Finals.
Each of the three official Classics have seen a team go on to play in the Finals. Unfortunately, that team has gone on to lose the Cup in the end (Pit ’08, Det ’09). It’s a very small sample size, and really has zero relevance of indicators, but Philadelphia fans could be a little nervous if history tries to repeat itself.
8. Marian Hossa and quest for the Stanley Cup
No, that’s not the title to a Harry Potter sequel, it’s just one NHL player’s journey to finally hold the Stanley Cup instead of getting to the Finals and watching his opponent do the lifting. Hossa lost the Finals in 2008 with the Penguins, then lost again last year with the Red Wings (to the Penguins) and now he’s back for a third straight season with a third different team. He’s plenty talented himself, and is surrounded by enough talent to do it. Hossa needs to make sure he doesn’t have a let down in the series and that his teammates don’t either. If talent wins out, Hossa should finally be a Stanley Cup Champion this time around.Follow paulmbanks