Here we are. After a long season filled with ups and downs, lefts and rights and a even a few diagonals, we have finally arrived at the start of the last series of the NHL season. From the moment the puck dropped between the Leafs and Canadiens, every fan has hoped that they will see their team rise above all others to be crowned Stanley Cup champions. Out of 30 teams, 2 remain, and they will begin their battle for hockey supremacy starting tomorrow night in Chicago. So, without further ado (and because there's nothing going on with the Wings right now), here is THITD's preview of the Stanley Cup Finals.
Goaltending - Wow. What a matchup we have here. Not since Roy vs Brodeur in 2001 have we seen 2 heavyweights square off head-to-head. 2 high-draft picks leading their teams to the.....wait, what? Neither goalie was highly sought-after coming out of junior or out of Europe? But I thought in order to win a Stanley Cup a team needed a top prospect to get this far. Huh, shows what I know about hockey. In this series we've got the rookie Antti Niemi going against the journeyman Michael Leighton. Both goalies have played extremely well, but now we're at the Big Dance, and we'll see who can step it up. Both goalies are facing less than 30 shots per game (on average), but Philly is facing a team that is much better offensively than anyone they've played so far. Still, Philly has beaten Martin Brodeur, Tukka Rask (who would be a Calder candidate if he played all season) and Jaroslav Halak, so they know what it takes to score on a hot goalie. I'll give a slight edge to Niemi, because he looks like a Russian gangster, and if there's one thing movies and TV have taught me, it's that you don't piss off the Russian mafia.
Advantage - Chicago
Defense - This is a closer matchup than people think. Too many people are talking about Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Chris "Bring Da Noise, Bring Da Elbows" Pronger. But if you look at the rest of Philly's defense, it reminds me a lot of Detroit's, but in reverse. They've got a shutdown guy in Pronger paired with a solid two-way guy in Timonen (who has surprised me with how good he is). Then you've got Braydon Coburn on the 2nd pairing (who apparently can not be stopped, no matter what happens to him) paired with an offensive guy in Matt Carle. How will they fare against the top lines of the Hawks? There is speed back there, and we all know that Pronger can handle himself. On the Hawks, beyond the obvious pairing of Keith and Seabrook (as an aside, I like Keith. I don't normally like Hawks players, but there's something about Keith and the way he plays that I respect. Plus, any guy that can lose 7 teeth and still come back is all right in my books), you've got the $7 million dollar man Brian Campbell paired with Hjalmarsson and greasy-haired Brent Sopel logging important minutes on the 3rd pairing. Campbell's been pretty invisible this playoffs, but not ineffective, so I guess that's something. Still, there's nothing like paying 12.5% of your salary cap to your #3 defenseman. Overall, I like Philly's defense over the Hawks. I think Pronger is a beast back there, and has provided a presence on the blue line of the Flyers that has not been there since Eric Desjardins. The only team that had anyone that could have matched up with Byfuglien size-wise was the Sharks, but Fugly is too big to ass-check down (I'm looking at you, Rob Blake). Pronger can take him. I hope he does, because I can't stand to see a guy score a goal from 2 feet in front of the net and then stare down the opposing fans like he just went around the whole team. Advantage: Philly
Forwards - I think this is where the Hawks have the edge. As much as I can't stand them, the Hawks boast a lot of talent up front. The top line of Toews, Kane and Byfugly is pretty much unstoppable right now, and if they do get shut down, then the Hawks can throw out Sharp, Hossa and Bolland or Madden, Versteeg and Ladd. It's a little scary when your third line can score. Plus, if someone goes down, they can always throw Tomas Kopecky out there, a dangerous proposition for the Flyers. If anything can put the fear of God in me, it's an angry Tomas Kopecky. Barring something different happening in the Finals, Toews is the front-runner for the Conn Smythe, and he's another Hawk that I actually don't mind. He's the kind of guy that I say "boy, I wish he was on another team". He was great for Canada in the Olympics and has continued his strong play into the playoffs. He would scare me if I were a Flyers fan. I would also be scared of Patrick "20 Cent" Kane, but only because anyone who willingly looks like this has some severe issues; next thing you know he'll be graduating to more violent behaviour. If I were the Flyers, I would keep my head up at all times when Kaner's on the ice. The nice thing for the Hawks is that, even though the team as a whole is pretty young, Hossa's been in the Finals enough to make up for everyone else's lack of experience ten-fold. My advice to the Hawks forwards: whatever Hossa says you guys need to do to win, do the opposite. I'm just sayin'.
The Flyers don't exactly have a bunch of houseleaguers on their team. They are led by Pierre McGuire's favourite "monster" Mike Richards, and if you want to talk about guys keeping their heads up; the Hawks will be well served to know exactly when Richards is on the ice at all times, lest they end up like some of these guys. The Flyers have had scoring for a few years, and now Jeff Carter and Simon Gagne are healthy, Daniel Briere is playing up to his contract and Daniel Carcillo is....well, he's doing something out there. Claude Giroux scored a couple of nice goals against the Canadiens, and then there's everyone's favourite son, Ville Leino. Given up for dead by the Wings because of salary cap issues, Leino has been re-born in Philly, actually playing like, you know, what we all thought he could be. You can't blame lack of talent around him for his struggles in Detroit, because he was playing with Henrik Fucking Zetterberg, and I could score 20 goals playing with Hank. Who knows what happened, but Uncle Mike clearly lost interest in fair Ville, and he was shuffled off to Philly. You know what? I feel good for him. Leino was a guy that was expected to put up decent numbers this year, but I know I wasn't thinking he was going to challenge for the Rocket Richard trophy. 15-20 goals, 40-50 points, that's what I wanted from him. But then Franzen got hurt, and everyone thought that Leino was just going to pick up the Mule's slack in his absence, and when he didn't, we all got pissed off and called him a bust. I don't think that was fair to Leino (look how long it took for Franzen to develop into the player he is today), but I also don't think the Wings "gave up" on Leino either. They had to get Lilja into the lineup, and that meant sacrificing a forward. Unfortunately, Leino had to go. However, Leino did suck balls here in Detroit, so I think a portion of his playoff bonus should be paid back to the Wings for wasting our time this year (and yes, I realize I completely contradicted myself by saying that I wasn't expecting much from him and then getting on his case for not producing). Advantage - Chicago
Coaching - The 'stache vs.....well, I don't really have a nickname for Laviolette. Joel Quenneville, while not able to ever beat Detroit in the playoffs (ever - look it up), has quietly become one of the better coaches in the NHL. I know a lot of people here were very surprised when he was hired to be the Hawks' coach last year, but he's done a good job at making the Hawks a cohesive unit. Sure, trying to figure out what his lines will be is as easy as figuring out
certain math problems. But Q has always struck me as a guy that got a lot out of his players, even if those players stunk. This is a guy that won a President's Trophy with Roman Turek as his goalie - clearly he's got some coaching talent. But, this is his first real kick at the can, as he's never coached in the Finals before, and he's going against a guy that took a largely underrated team (the Hurricanes) all the way in 2006 in Laviolette. I'll be honest - I don't know a lot about Laviolette, since I mostly pay attention to the Western Conference. I know he won the Cup in 2006, but that's about it. One thing struck me when checking him out, and that is that he took the Islanders to the playoffs. Clearly, if he can do that, he is some sort of coaching prodigy. He seems to be playing the part of Dan Bylsma this year - taking a talented-yet-underachieving team from the depths of the East all the way to the Finals. Given that he's had 19 starting goalies to work with this year, I'd say he's done a pretty good job. Advantage - Flyers
So, what does all that mean? I don't know. I'm horrible at picking series. I know I didn't post anything, but in the first round I went 5 for 8, in the second round I went 1 for 4, and in the third round I went 1 for 2 (the only team I have consistently gotten right is the Hawks). I've already given my opinion on who I am cheering for, but I never said who I thought would win. Much like with the Wings-Sharks series, my heart is leaning one way but my head is screaming something different. With the Wings, I went with my heart; I've learned my lesson. My official pick is Hawks in 6, only because I hope that if they do win the Cup, it's not in front of their legions of bandwagon fans. I've always lived by the old adage: hope for the best but for prepare for the worst. That pretty much sums up how I feel about this series.