28 May 2010

Finals Preview

Blackhawks/Flyers

In the least competitive round of hockey so far, Chicago and Philadelphia wasted but a game in advancing past the conference finals. The San Jose Sharks were swept, and the Montreal Canadiens managed one win, more the prideful expirant grabbing at his attacker’s heel, forcing the job to be finished, than any real competition.

Three years ago, Chicago and Philadelphia picked first and second in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, their consolation for being the worst teams in the league. Chicago had just missed the postseason for a fifth straight year. Philadelphia had had its worst season in franchise history. Now they play for the Stanley Cup, which Chicago last won in 1961 and Philadelphia in 1975.


Cubalogists and Castro-watchers take note: When William “Dollar Bill” Wirtz died in 2007 after serving as president of the Chicago Blackhawks for 41 years, 3,400 fans held season tickets at the United Center, the second-emptiest arena in the NHL. Then his son Rocky took control of the team. He paid big money for free agents and allowed every Blackhawks game to be televised locally, overturning two of his father’s long-standing policies. Rocky hired marketer John McDonough away from the Chicago Cubs, and McDonough created the NHL’s first team-sponsored fan convention, named estranged Hall of Famers Tony Esposito, Stan Mikita, and Bobby Hull team ambassadors, and partnered the team with Comcast SportsNet and WGN. Forbes called what McDonough did for a franchise that until then had neither a human resources manager nor a receptionist “the greatest sports-business turnaround ever.” The Blackhawks now lead the NHL in attendance, averaging 108.3 percent capacity per home game. There’s a 4,000-person waiting list for season tickets.  

The team itself is led by 22-year-old Jonathan Toews (pronounced “Tayves”). Toews long ago began whittling his legend: two World Junior championships for Canada, a World Championship, a gold medal, and the third-youngest captaincy in NHL history. Toews’ game is hard to describe. Like Steve Yzerman or Joe Sakic, Toews does every single thing—skate, shoot, pass, defend—with such consistent skill and poise that he seems unremarkable. He now holds a team record for scoring a point in 13-straight playoff games, one of them an assist coming on a penalty kill when he stepped in front of a Dan Boyle slapshot, blocked it, and kicked the puck to a streaking teammate while being bodychecked. To celebrate, Toews allowed himself to flare his nostrils. When he’s still before a faceoff, it’s easy to imagine steam curling out of his nose, hinting at what roils in him, like an electric teapot.

Toews leads the playoffs with 26 points, many of them assists to his linemate Patrick Kane. Kane, the Blackhawks first-ever first-overall draft pick in 2007, is a 21-year-old from Buffalo. Whereas Toews is a responsible, equanimous, north-south centerman, Kane is a wiry, sometimes lazy winger who slides crosswise through defenses as though lubricated. Kane is more of a playmaker than Toews. And in the way of all the best playmakers, he is a balsified man-boy whose game is anxiety. He’s always stopping short on the wing and daring someone to smush him against the glass, or he’s dangling the puck far in front of his feet and inviting a defender to paw at it—he loves to put his slightness in seemingly vulnerable positions and then make opponents look foolish when he flits past them. He’s third in playoff points, and on the bench next to Toews he’s continuously chewing on a shapeless mouth guard, literally champing at his bit.

On Toews’ other wing is Dustin Byfuglien (“BUFF-lin,” somehow), a 260-pound converted defenseman. Byfuglien skates with the dread inertia of a house succumbing to a landslide, and he has a defenseman’s heavy shot, but his job on Chicago’s top line is to: 1) Clear the corners, 2) Retrieve the puck and pass it to someone else, and 3) Post up with his ass in the goaltender’s face and wait for rebounds. His level of effort waxes and wanes, and without good supporting players he can be pretty useless. But when pucks are loose around the net (as they were in Game 3 of the Vancouver series, in which he had a hat trick), Byfuglien is a coal shoveler stoking a furnace. He celebrates road goals by skating along the glass, one leg up and crotch to the audience, his eyes wide and tongue lolled like a Maori. His four game-winning goals tie him with Philadelphia’s Danny Briere for the most in the playoffs.

Behind the Buff-Toews-Kane line is the deepest corps of forwards in the NHL, six of whom scored more than 20 goals in the regular season. The second line of Troy Brouwer-Patrick Sharp-Marian Hossa is only marginally less dangerous and has feasted on teams’ second-pairing defensemen. Down on the fourth line is John Madden, a John Madden not at all similar to the one you’re thinking of, who won two Cups with the New Jersey Devils and at 37 years old is still one of the best defensive forwards in the game.
  
Perhaps the Blackhawks biggest weakness is in goal. Anti Niemi is a 26-year-old, undrafted Finn whom the Blackhawks signed as a free agent in 2008. He played 39 games this year and won the starting job away from Frenchman and salary-cap albatross, Cristobal Huet. Niemi has been inconsistent in the playoffs, but he played well against San Jose. He’s a quick, compact goalie whose leg pads top his nipples when crouching. He plays deep in the net, exploding laterally with legs that seem to telescope. His glove hand is slippery, though, and if he loses his position or rebound control, he’s a sieve.

In front of him for more than half each game is Duncan Keith, a fifth-year defenseman who’s a lock to win the Norris Trophy for the game’s best blueliner. Keith’s mellifluous skating allows him to join the rush—or lead it—and not compromise his team. His 69 regular-season points would’ve led the Flyers. While eliminating San Jose, Keith took a puck to the face, lost 7 teeth, and still played 29 minutes (most other players skate between 15 and 22 minutes a game).

Most important, Keith leads a very mobile, very balanced defensive unit. Each of Chicago’s three pairings has a guy—Keith, Brian Campbell, Brent Sopel—who is a tremendous skater and first-passer. The first pass, or breakout pass, is the most important part of a hockey offense. A defenseman who can hit a forward in stride with a pass from his own defensive zone while under pressure from the opposition is more valuable than a great scorer.

Philadelphia beat New Jersey, Boston, and Montreal, the 30th-, 26th-, and 19th-ranked offenses in the league, with a high-pressure forecheck and airtight gap control between the forwards and defensemen in their half of the ice. These were counterattacking teams that, deprived of their normal style of play, tried and failed to chip pucks behind and outrace Philadelphia’s big, physical defensemen.    

Chicago is a very fast transition team that can also control the puck for minutes at a time. Their offense begins in their own zone, with Keith, Campbell, or Sopel carrying the puck or making a stretch pass to forwards cutting through the neutral zone. Chicago will win if their defensemaen skate away from pressure and make good outlet passes. But Chicago will lose if they get frustrated and abandon their game. They’re the youngest team in the league, and if Philadelphia can slow them and get under their skin, the Blackhawks will fray.


Pardon me for fawning over the Blackhawks. It’s just that I really dislike the Flyers.

The Philadelphia Flyers are the only team in the NHL that has maintained an identity since its inception, in 1967. The majority of the players they draft and sign are terrible, in that they inspire actual terror. Gummy, fierce mooks who have done more to keep alive Philly’s hard-city affect than all their other sports heroes combined, save maybe Rocky Balboa.   

Their patron saint, Bobby Clarke, captained Canada in the 1972 Summit Series against the Soviets and in game six deliberately fractured the ankle of the greatest-ever Soviet left winger to secure victory in that game and the series. Clarke subsequently led the “Broad Street Bullies” gooneries of the mid-70s to two championships, the only times the NHL has been coerced into awarding the Stanley Cup. Clark is the etiology of the “Philly Flu,” the condition opposing forwards came down with prior to playing Philadelphia, otherwise known as malingering, otherwise known as a vey understandable fear for life and limb. More often than not, Clarke had a big smile on his face when two-handedly hacking joints, his four front teeth missing because that’s the slot where Satan inserted his tokens to play. Clarke managed the Flyers for the better part of two decades, but now he’s their senior vice president.

These Flyers made the playoffs on the last game of the regular season, eliminating the New York Rangers in that abomination, the shootout. During the season they changed coaches, suffered key injuries, and underachieved in general. And yet before the season began, The Hockey News predicted that they had the depth and experience to win the Stanley Cup.

Philadelphia’s captain and answer to Toews is Mike Richards. Richards disappointed in the regular season (62 points), but he’s been beastly in the playoffs. To the delight of every Flyer fan, he’s matured into the brutish two-way centerman with great touch they hoped he’d be. Philadelphia became just the third team in NHL history to come back from a 3-0 series deficit when they upset Boston in the semifinals; coincidentally, Richards dislocated the wrist of Bruins’ scoring center David Krejci in Game 3. A truly illustrative Richards Moment happened early in Game 5 against the Canadiens when, on a penalty-kill, Richards charged pointman Marc-Andre Bergeron, brained him, took the puck the other way on an odd-man rush, hustled back to the defensive zone after the scoring chance was denied, saw his teammate win a puck down low, took off for a breakaway despite having been on the ice for a very long time, chased the puck down, and precipitated a huge collision with the aggressive Montreal goalie, who lay dazed while Richards tapped the puck into an empty net. It was Richards’ third shorthanded goal of the playoffs. During the regular season, the Blackhawks’ Marian Hossa led the league with five.

Philadelphia hired coach Peter Laviolette midway through the season. He instituted the up-tempo system he used to win a Stanley Cup in Carolina in 2006, and the Flyers have run it with great success. In it, they send two forecheckers in deep to harry the other team’s defensemen. The third forward waits high in the zone, which allows his defensemen to pinch with no fear of surrendering an odd-man rush. The team moves as a unit, like they’re tethered to one another. Together they’ve bunged their defensive zone; teams have had to dump the puck behind them, and even when they retrieve it, which has been rare, the Flyers keep them on the perimeter and clear every rebound.  

The Flyers’ success rests with that gap control between forwards and defensemen. It will be tested by the Blackhawks. Their forwards will break for the neutral zone, hoping to peel defensemen away with them and create soft ice. San Jose and Nashville proved that the Blackhawks can be slowed with the trap, a passive strategy whereby all five skaters lie in wait in the middle of the ice, but Laviolette likes offense and is very much trap-averse.
 
Offensively, Philadelphia is almost as deep as Chicago. They’ve already beat the #1, #2, and #13 defensive teams. (Chicago was #6 in the regular season.) Richards, second to Toews in playoff points, centers two pure goal-scorers, Simon Gagne and Jeff Carter. On the second line Danny Briere plays similarly to Kane, and he’s flanked by gritty Ville Leino and Scott Hartnell, a power forward who has gone many lunar cycles without a trim or a shave and now looks exactly how he plays: heavy, plodding, hairy, ogrish.

The Flyers can prevail if their bottom-six perform. Claude Giroux has emerged in these playoffs as Philadelphia’s best forward. His line includes big James van Riemsdyk (picked in 2007 behind Kane, the first time two Americans went #1-#2 in a draft) and Arron Asham, a middleweight whose hands are calcified on the outside but soft within, like turtles. The fourth line is a rock tumbler: Ian Laperierre has blocked two shots with his face this season, including one in the first round against New Jersey that put a spot on his brain. He’s back out there now with a face shield. Chicago hasn’t been tested physically in these playoffs, and Philadelphia’s been uncharacteristically well behaved. If the bottom-six agitate, they can win.

In the past, mediocre goaltending has doomed Philadelphia. They’ve refused to learn from their mistakes and acquire an expensive, good goalie, believing that good-enough will win the day. They went with an aged Ron Hextall/Garth Snow tandem when they were swept in the 1997 Stanley Cup Final. They tried Sean Burke in 1998, John Vanbiesbrouck in 1999, Brian Boucher in 2000, Roman Cechmanek between 2001-2003, Robert Esche/Antero Niittymaki in 2004 and 2005, and Martin Biron in 2007 and 2008.

In these playoffs, they again tried Brian Boucher, who since the lockout has been with six NHL (including Chicago) and two AHL teams. His knees gave out against Boston, so now the Flyers make do with Michael Leighton. Leighton was waived by Carolina, a team that for most of the season was jockeying with Edmonton for the league’s bottom spot. He’s a very average goalie who doesn’t venture far out of the goal mouth. He’s made saves when he’s had to, but the credit for his three shutouts against Montreal should go to his defense.

That defense is led by Chris Pronger. In the offseason, Philadelphia traded prospects and two first-round picks to Anaheim for Pronger, the nasty, six-foot-six shutdown defenseman past Flyers teams lacked. At 35, Pronger is now about 25 percent less vicious than he once was, which still makes him more vicious than almost everyone. In the 2007 playoffs, Pronger was suspended twice for headshots. He argued his defense: “Of course I’m going to hit him in the head. He’s quite a bit shorter than me. It’s just law of physics.” Ever the gamesman, Pronger himself wears a helmet the size of a halved Volkswagen Beetle. No team in the West had an answer to Dustin Byfuglien, but Pronger will more than match him. And next to Pronger, Kane will look drawn to scale.

For Philadelphia to win, they’ll have to play Flyers hockey: tough, greasy, sneering. Chicago will try to turn the series into a track meet, but Philadelphia can’t allow themselves to trade chances with the Blackhawks. They have to stick to their system, maintain gaps, protect Leighton, and turn the series into a streetfight.


Marian Hossa was on the 2008 Pittsburgh Penguins team that lost in the Stanley Cup Final to the Detroit Red Wings. In the offseason, Hossa turned down the Penguins’ offer and signed with Detroit, believing he had a better chance of winning a Cup there. In 2009, therefore, Marian Hossa was on the Detroit team that lost in the Stanley Cup Final to Pittsburgh. In the offseason, Hossa signed with Chicago, believing he had a better chance of winning a Cup there. Make of this what you will.

People in hockey make a big deal out of whether or not a team captain touches the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl or the Prince of Whales Trophy, the awards presented to the winners of the Western and Eastern conferences, respectively. Most say it’s terrible bad luck to touch them or celebrate them in any way before playing for the Cup: It’s like celebrating an ex- on the way to your wedding ceremony. The Blackhawks’ Toews skated away from the Bowl as though it was full of bees, but the Flyers’ Richards grabbed the Trophy with both hands, took an ass-slap from Carter, and skated it into the locker room. Make of this what you will.

Daniel Carcillo. Read the name; then try it out loud. Do you not see, in your mind’s eye . . . cancer? The Flyers’ Daniel Carcillo is not exactly a cancer, but he is an unreconstructed goon, a bad man who grew the pubey mustache of a junior-high cretin earlier in the season to “honor” past Flyers greats. At numerous points in his career he’s violated the honor code of NHL tough guys by attacking non-fighters, including, this past season, the Rangers’ peaceable Slovak Martin Gaborik. To be fair to Carcillo, there aren’t that many tough guys left to fight anymore, and yet this was too much. Earlier in the playoffs, the otherwise bloodthirsty commentator Don Cherry said of Carcillo, “This guy’s a bully, and most bullies are cowards.” As other, legitimate Flyer forwards have returned from injury, Carcillo has played less. Lately he’s been caged in the press box. Still, he leads all remaining players in penalty minutes. If Philadelphia decides to loose him on the Blackhawks, it will raise the temperature of the series significantly.

I say: Chicago in six.

Image: Dave "The Hammer" Schultz, Philadelphia Flyers, 1971-1976.

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