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One team will end a long, storied drought and bring Lord Stanley’s mug back to a city that has been longing for it for an extended period of time.
Through three games, Chicago has held serve and won two close games at home: 6-5 in Game 1 followed by a tighter checking, nastier 2-1 decision in Game 2. Philadelphia headed home for Game 3 and promptly outlasted the Hawks in OT, 4-3.
The last time Philadelphia won the cup was back in 1975, their second in a row. Thirty-five years is a long time. Their last chance at the cup came back in 1997, but they were quickly swept away at that point, and most forget they were even there. For the Hawks, it has been even longer. In fact, 1961 was the last time they were able to hoist the glorious mug. And 1992 was the last time they even played for the chance. This spring, one of these teams will end that, and be forever remembered in their respective cities.
It is almost like a matchup you would expect in the first round. The Western Conference’s second seed will be playing against the Eastern Conference’s seventh seed. Don’t let the seeding chart fool you, though; both teams expected to be here at the start of the season. No one could have expected the very different journeys the two clubs have taken to get here, but trust me, they both expected to be here. And both teams share many parallels in how they got here.
Big Offseason Acquisition
In the off-season, both teams made changes to get them over the proverbial hump. Chicago brought in Marian Hossa, fresh off back-to-back Stanley Cup finals appearances with the Detroit Red Wings and prior to that, the Pittsburgh Penguins. His experience and big body would serve well a young team learning how to win after bowing out in the conference finals last year. Philadelphia brought in hulking defenseman Chris Pronger. Pronger plays a game that is on the edge. Tremendous abilities combined with a penchant for simply being downright nasty. This is the third team he has taken to the Stanley Cup finals, all in the last five years, all in the first year he was in their respective uniforms.
Hitting Rock Bottom
Back in 2007, both of these teams were at rock bottom. They picked first and second overall, respectively, and were coming off divisional last-place finishes. Chicago won the draft lottery and was able to draft Patrick Kane. Kane won the Calder Trophy the next year and along with other young talent, sped up the recovery process in Chicago. Philadelphia went with fellow American James van Riemsdyk with the No. 2 pick. More of a power forward, the American took a couple of extra years to mature and fill into his body, but showed promise as a rookie this year. Combined with other young talent on the team, he has fit in well.
Both teams have goaltenders in place that many “experts” thought could be exposed. Annti Niemi was the choice in the net for Chicago as veteran Christobal Huet has played second fiddle and has seen but a single game of mop-up duty in the playoffs so far. The 26-year-old rookie has played with poise, and has been able to come up with the big stop when needed. Currently, Michal Leighton (the waiver wire pickup) is in goal for Philadelphia. Leighton has done nothing but earn himself a nice payday with his recent play. Picked off the waiver wire early in the year, he stepped in when the Flyers were ravaged between the pipes with injury and held his own, keeping his new team within range of the playoffs. He went down with an injury earlier this season, and it wasn’t until he stepped in against the Bruins and helped preserve a shutout for the team, that he hasn’t looked back. Leighton tied a record by posting three shutouts in a conference final, something that has only been done a handful of times in history. Against the undersized Canadiens, Leighton was able to control many pucks, and make the necessary stops. Even when they had the Canadiens on the ropes, many expected him to wake up from his “dream” and realize that he is “Michael Leighton.” Well the carriage has not yet turned back into a pumpkin, and he remains Philly’s backstop.
After the 6-5 Game 1 battle in which Leighton was pulled in favor of Brian Boucher, which created more of the same for Philly…which goalie is our goalie? Leighton started in Game 2 and played much better, but was still unable to steal a game in Chicago. Niemi was shown faith, with a lackluster Game 1 performance in which he gave up five goals, but was able to make some big stops when it counted most in the third and deciding period.
Quality, Young Leaders
Both teams have tremendous young leaders as their team captains. The Flyers boast Mike Richards, one of the best two way players in the game today, who has also been a winner at every level. Richards has won the Memorial Cup with the Kitchener Rangers, a World Junior champion (and former team captain), a Calder Cup with the Philadelphia Phantoms, a gold medal at the Olympics this year, and is now gunning for his first Stanley Cup. Richards followed suit after Sidney Crosby grabbed the Prince of Wales trophy at the trophy presentation, held it up, skated through his team before taking it to the dressing room. Signifying a team that has been through so much, they deserved to celebrate that trophy, but also acknowledging that more work needed to be done, and they won’t celebrate too much until another three wins are in the bank.
The Hawks boast “Captain Serious” Jonathan Toews who is a fantastic two-way player in his own right. Also a winner wherever he has gone, a World Junior Champion (who will forget his shootout effort against the Americans in the semi-final), a World Champion, and Olympic gold medalist as well, he and Richards were teammates in Vancouver this year, where both ranked amongst team Canada’s top players. Toews has very underrated strength on the puck and in the faceoff circle; it’s been a treat to watch these two young leaders strut their stuff against one another in the finals this year. I don’t think anyone out there in the hockey world could find two better leaders for their teams. It would be tough to say these two don’t rank in the top five team captains out there right now.
Hobby Implications of the Stanley Cup Finals
There are a few stars that will probably see a spike in their card values should they be able to hoist Lord Stanley’s mug. As discussed, both team captains would see a rise should they lead their respective teams to victory. Toews and Richards both already have good followings. Richards might get more of bump overall, as I believe his following is more regional then that of Toews, but they both have their die-hard collectors. One of them will be hoisting Lord Stanley though, and will be a big reason why in the end, look for the Cup winner to see a spike.
Jeff Carter and Patrick Kane also will probably see more movement on their top cards, especially top rookie cards should they help their teams to victory. These two stars simply have too much talent not to be a big part of their team successes. Both of these players will be forever linked with their captains. Carter made his debut back in 05/06, the same year as Richards, and Kane started in 07/08; the same year that Toews debuted. Like Toews and Richards, they have had some issues getting started in the series, so look for their respective coaches to scheme a few things to get them going.
Goalies will always be a part of any hobby-related discussion. Once a cup-winning goalie, always a cup winning goalie, and there is no way of taking that off of the resume. If you have won a cup, you will always have a team willing to take a chance on you and collectors who will want to pick up your stuff. Niemi and Leighton, while not necessarily household names when the season began, certainly are now. Their play has helped their teams as well as their place in the hobby.
The last two players I will look at right now from a hobby perspective are Dave Bolland and Claude Giroux. These two could play a huge role in the finals as they play their games. Bolland is a bit of a pest to play against, with a strong two-way game, he will play a large role in stopping one of the Flyers top two lines while hoping to continue honing his ever-evolving offensive game. He can skate, shoot, win face-offs, which basically means he can do it all. Look for him to grab hold of the regional market, as well as break into a larger light should he have the kind of impact in the finals as he did in the conference finals playing against Joe Thornton and the San Jose Sharks.
Giroux is certainly showing the offensive flair that made him a junior sensation. Currently playing at a point a game clip in the playoffs, he will be a big part of the secondary scoring unit that will be counted on to help deliver the Flyers the title. If Giroux is scoring, chances are good that the Flyers are winning. He has put up at least five points in each round of the playoffs so far, and will look to continue that going forward.
With Chicago holding serve at home, Philadelphia will look to do the same. Chicago has played well away from home thus far in the playoffs, but I never count a team out until they start losing home games. Philly is not in trouble yet in my books, sure a less then desirable spot, down 2-1, but not yet out of it. Who wins the Conn Smythe trophy? Going in, tough to go against Jonathan Toews, but after being held in check through three games, will someone else jump to the forefront? Who are you looking for to make an impact in the hobby because of this year’s playoff run?