Monday, May 24, 2010
By Brett Ballantini
Just a shootout shot from tee times, the Philadelphia Flyers snuck into the postseason as a No. 7 seed and have proceeded to set the NHL on its ear (in addition to validating the faith of the esteemed pucks bible The Hockey News, who in preseason tabbed the Flyers as the 2010 Stanley Cup winner, somewhere along the way issued a full retraction in some form or fashion, and doubtlessly now has popped a few Molsons to celebrate its foresight). Foremost in the ear-setting was Philadelphias extraordinary double-3-0 comeback on the Boston Bruins in the semis, rallying from both a 3-0 deficit in the series and a 3-0 score in the deciding Game 7.
But the bad news for the Cinderella Flyers is that an awfully large pumpkin awaits them in the Stanley Cup Finals: the Chicago Blackhawks. And this pumpkin wont be for carving or bakingit will be smashing. The Blackhawks enter the Finals as overwhelming favorites, and there is little evidence anyone can unearth that wont involve pixie dust, fairy tales and moonbeams to support a Philadelphia upset. But with Game 1 still five days away and for the sake of evenhandedness at the outset, here are three key ways to beat the Flyersand the Blackhawks.
How to Beat the Flyers
Speed Kills: The last two Blackhawks playoff opponents, the Vancouver Canucks and San Jose Sharks, have been fair matches for the blinding speed Chicago brings to the ice. What will happen, then, to the fair Flyers who are charged with slowing this locomotive down? The Blackhawks boast better depth on both ends of the rink than almost any other NHL team, and that advantage is in play vs. Philadelphia as well. Worse for the Flyers, Chicago has played one less postseason game and enters the Finals with one more day of rest, minor advantages to be sure, but likely guardians against the underdogs jumping up and popping the Blackhawks in the mouth for a Game 1, smash-and-dash upset.
The Buffer: Who among you brave Philadelphians bearing sweaters lorange dare face up to ascendant playoff star Dustin Byfuglien? The manchild has run wild playing deep for Chicago, to the tune of a team-high eight playoff goals attained in just his past eight games and an NHL postseason-leading four game-winning goals, which includes three in the San Jose series alone. This story of a low depth-chart forward bumped back to defense due to late-season injuries whos now flourishing on Chicagos top line alongside minty fresh superstars Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews is nothing short of extraordinary. And the bad news for Philadelphia is that its a story due to continue, as the Flyers are ill-equipped to corral Big Buffs combination of size and quickness. Byfuglien has foiled both Roberto Luongo and Evgeni Nabokovto what form of rubble will he reduce Michael Leighton?
Possess the Puck: There is no greater key to Chicagos domination of the 2009-10 regular season than its ability on both ends of the ice to simply strong-arm and suffocate the game by never letting go of the puck. Chicagos shot differential of plus-9.0, the third-biggest of any team in the post-lockout era, is a distinct measure of playoff success. Against Nashville, Chicago stumbled, drawn into some sloggy play and were missing their ace in the hole for puck possession, Brian Campbell. Chicagos shot differential for the series was a mere plus-2.3, but with Campbell back on the ice, the discrepancy between the Hawks and Preds was marked. The Blackhawks boasted good enough balance on both ends to have gone Globetrotter on the Vancouver Canucks, and was the single-most important aspect of their relatively easy semis win. And against San Jose, the Blackhawks let through an uncommonly high number of shotsforcing Antti Niemi to stop a career-best 44 attempts in Game 1, then forcing him to duplicate the feat in Game 3yet mostly controlled the tone and tenor of all four games. When Chicago puts itself in position to play keepaway until daylight to the goaltender breaks, teams fold. Its a crucial aspect of not only the Blackhawks offense, but its defense. Puck possession on Chicagos level is nothing short of a neck-snapper, and will be a key determinant in how easy the Cup drops into the mitts of the Hometown Heroes.
How to Beat the Blackhawks
Visit Smashville: Philadelphia, and its confident coach Peter Laviolette, is notorious for not ceding strategy in favor of matchups or going against its strengths. But the Flyers would be smart to not attempt to keep pace with the high-flying, deep Hawks, instead opting for a strategy played to some success by the Predators, and, briefly, the Canucks. Philadelphia has the veteran presence to button-down the game, nullifying Chicagos puck-possession advantage. The Flyers might not boast the defensive depth of the Blackhawks, but the underdogs can determine the tone of the series with blueline leadership from Chris Pronger and smart, physical play from Phillys crop of feisty forwards, who are capable of taking the game right to tender Chicagos jawline. Based on how the Blackhawks wilted in the face of some of Nashvilles physical pressure, a bit of slog-it-out brawling could go a long way in the Finals.
Rowdy Guests: While the Blackhawks won Games 3 and 4 of the Western Conference finals at home, raising their postseason slate to 5-3 in the United Center, Chicago is clearly playing better on the road. The Flyers are 5-4 on the road in the playoffs and have acquitted themselves very well in road openers, shocking the New Jersey Devils 2-1 in the quarters opener and pushing the Bruins to overtime before falling 5-4 in the first game of the semis. Philadelphia is flying into the belly of the beast with Saturdays United Center opener, but the game would have been considerably more imposing in January, when the Blackhawks were en route to an NHL third-best 29 home wins. As winter has been thawed by May, some cracks have formed.
Soar Quickly: While this is not applicable to the San Jose series, as in all four games the Sharks packed the strongest initial punch and the Blackhawks still winnowed out wins, the possibility exists to quickly pounce on Chicago and seize the momentum of the series. One of the few openings the confident Hawks left the Predators and Canucks earlier in the playoffs was a mild and brief tendency to become discombobulated under duressand perhaps skating into the Finals as heavy favorites will aggravate this annoying tendency in Chicago once more. An immediate Philadelphia win in the series is probably not integral to an overall Stanley Cup win, but a split in Chicago is, as any mucking up of the Redshirts game plan could yield emotional riches down the road. As impossible as it is to imagine with the roll theyre on now, early in the playoffs the Blackhawks admitted being ill-prepared and perhaps undermotivated. If theres one area the Flyers can clearly outpace Chicago, theyve proven its with the so-called compete levelrallying from down 3-0 to win a series earns you an advantage there for the full postseason. Philadelphia absolutely must out-compete the Hawksand quickly.