In a couple hours, the Chicago Blackhawks and the Philadelphia Flyers will commence battle. Game One marks the beginning of the end, the final act of the wildly unpredictable 2010 NHL postseason. To the winner goes the most excellent trophy in all of sport: Lord Stanley’s Cup. I’ve rhapsodized about the glories of the Cup in this space before, so I’ll save you the rerun, but it’s a hell of a prize.
More importantly than donuts and beer with the Cup, however, the winning franchise will end decades of heartbreak and frustration for their long-suffering fanbase.
The Flyers haven’t won it all in a generation; it’s been 35 years since Bernie Parent and the Broad Street Bullies chugged champagne in Buffalo’s Memorial Auditorium (RIP) after knocking out the upstart Sabres in six. That 1975 championship made the Flyers back-to-back champs, and Parent was a two-time Conn Smythe recipient. Since then: nothing but a pair of mid-80s losses in the Finals to Gretzky and Edmonton (’85, ’87) and a four game sweep by the Red Wings in 1997. Oh yeah, and a couple of heartbreaking Game 7 losses in the Conference Finals to the Devils (’99) and the Lightning (’04), respectively. Ouch.
As rough as Philly’s had it for three plus decades, Chicago’s endured far worse: The Blackhawks haven’t won shit since the Kennedy administration. Yup, not since 1961 have the Blackhawks raised the Cup in Chitown, and that’s a hell of a long time – the longest drought in the league. (Get ready, Leafs fans.) I imagine more folks remember Stan Mikita from his donut store in Wayne’s World than that championship Chicago team at this point – and hell, in a world where “Wild Out” by the Lox is now “old school” on Hot 97, Wayne’s World might as well be Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War. But really, the futility’s even deeper than that – the Hawks haven’t been to the Finals since 1992, and before last year, they hadn’t been to the playoffs, period, since 1997.
Bottom line: It’s been a minute. But the past is the past. For both these cities, happy times are here again – for now. Only one can win. Who’s it gonna be?
My money’s on Pat Kane (aka Mr. Mullet; aka 20 Cent; aka the Kokanee Kid; aka Buffalo’s Finest) and the Hawks. Not just because Kane’s hair is inspiring excellent t-shirts like this one – a kind of throwback to the glorious sporting apparel of my early 90s youth – but because Chicago looks to me to be the superior team.
Start on offense. Chicago’s top line features Pat Kane, with points in 14 of 16 of his playoff games; Jonathan Toews, who’s just 22 but, as Chicago’s captain, is the leading scorer in the postseason and can add a Stanley Cup (and maybe a Conn Smythe) to the Olympic gold he earned for Team Canada in Vancouver; and Dustin Byfuglien, who’s been wrecking shop with three game winners in his last six games. Add to that potent mix Patrick Sharp, Dave Bolland, Kris Versteeg, and Marian Hossa – who’s playing in his third straight Finals; dude’s gotta be tired – and the Hawks are loaded. Philly’s got grit in Mike Richards and scoring punch in a newly healthy Jeff Carter, Danny Briere and Simon Gagne, but I’m not sure they’ll be able to hang with Chicago’s speed and talent.
Switch over to the blueline. Sure, the indomitable Chris Pronger is a Flyer, but Chicago’s got Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, a pair of Olympians who contribute on both ends of the ice like the superstars they rightfully are. Keith earns this year’s iron man award for damn sure, after losing or breaking seven teeth in Game 4 against San Jose. He only missed a couple minutes after getting shot up with some painkilling juice. (Philly’s Ian Laperriere gets the honorable mention here; he suffered a brain contusion in the first round and came back against the Canadiens like it warn’t no thing.)
And in net, Finnish rook Antti Niemi and journeyman Michael Leighton have both been playing lights out for their respective squads, but I like Niemi, who’s arguably faced more firepower in the postseason than Leighton or Boucher have. He’s been rock solid, and I think his stellar play will continue tonight and throughout the series. On special teams, both teams have been dominant on the kill, but Philly hasn’t faced a team with Chicago’s firepower yet. Young Toews has five PPG in the playoffs already, and he’ll be looking to add more.
Flyers fans, you’ve had a magical run – a historic run – that no one could have seen coming. From that Sunday afternoon at the end of the season where you beat the Rags in a shootout to get into the tournament, to the facemelting comeback against Boston, you’ve blown minds and broken hearts. It’s been real. Take heart: my predictions have been fucked up throughout the tournament. But I’ve got one shot left to get it right, and I’m calling it Chicago in 6.