Stanley Cup Final Roundtable
Once again, Fifth Feather, Chris Block from Third Man In, Jeff Bartl from Blackhawk Up, and yours truly bat around some issues with the Hawks like a cat with a ball of yarn...
Who is your player of the series against San Jose?
Sam: Well everyone expects me to say Dave Bolland, being my guy and all. But this is easy, and it's Antti Niemi. He held them in games 1 and 2 when he was facing a barrage. In fact, he never let in more than 2 goals against a squad that isn't short on scoring. You could make a pretty good argument for Brian Campbell too, who was under the radar but awfully good.
Feather: Antti Niemi was the big reason the Hawks swept the Sharks and he'll be a big reason why they don't sweep the Flyers. Niemi's Game 1 in the WCF will go down in Hawk lore as one of the best goaltending exhibitions in team history. Niemi probably won't be able to keep up his exceptional play and because of that, the series will probably resemble the Nashville series more than the previous two.
Block: There is no one answer to this question. Its impossible to single out anyone specifically. Niemi was very good throughout. Hossa was great in a checking role. While Bolland gets the credit for getting into Joe Thornton’s head (and historically, how much of a task is that really?), it was Jonathan Toews who completely shut down the "new" Super-Joe (Pavelski) and drew the Marleau/Heatley assignment when they were split from Thornton. If I’m forced to go with one, it has to be Toews. However, that was a team-sweep if I’ve ever seen one. The Sharks couldn’t skate with the Hawks and their leaders; Thornton, Boyle and co., were unable to deal with the Hawks’ team assertiveness.
Did anything surprise you about the Conference Final?
Sam: I would say Joe Thornton's effort level, or Todd McLellan's panicky decisions which almost nullified Thornton's play. But I'm going to go with Kris Versteeg. He's playing as smart as we've ever seen but is still "making himself dangerous" to quote Hawk Harrelson. Kris has been on the checking line, but he won't have to to be in the Finals considering the Flyers depth and the fact this series will be pretty hammer and tongs.
Feather: If anyone predicted Dustin Byfuglien would score 3 game-winning goals, then go out and buy a lotto ticket. We've always been big advocates of Big Buff but never in our wildest dreams did we think he was capable of what he's done the last two rounds. If he has a Final as good as the last two rounds, then you might be looking at this year's Conn Smythe winner. Bet you didn't see that one coming in November.
Bartl: Though San Jose is notorious for shitting the bed in the playoffs, I'm very surprised they went out so quickly. The Sharks tried absolutely everything against the 'Hawks and nothing really worked. And if it did, Niemi was there flashing a middle finger. The Blackhawks just flat out BEAT the Sharks in every single aspect of the game. I knew the 'Hawks were the better team, but if anyone predicted a sweep they're just flat out lying.
Block: I’d have to say it did surprise me that, with the exception of Game 2, the Hawks never really ‘solved’ Evgeni Nabokov. Nabokov is notorious for his blow-ups and he usually goes down bombastically. It’s a concern heading into the Flyers’ series that the Hawks were skating circles around the Sharks’ sluggish defenseman, yet didn’t post a true offensive explosion. The series ahead will be much closer than it needs to be if Hossa and Patrick Kane can’t regain their scoring touch.
Looking ahead, do the Flyers scare you as a team that has scoring on three lines, or unimpress you as a team that just worked it's way past three seriously flawed teams?
Sam: Right now, the former. With Carter on the wing, his tendency to disappear in the playoffs is less in focus playing with the hell-coming-to-breakfast that is Mike Richards. Claude Giroux is an absolute stud and making Leino and Van Riemsdyk awfully scary. I don't know that I buy this Danny Briere-Playoff Stud thing yet, but he's playing quite well. The Flyers also have a very steady top 4 on the blue line, which the Hawks haven't seen yet. By the time they drop the puck on Saturday, I'll probably have convinced myself we'll get swept.
Feather: Is it a cop-out to say a little of both? Well too bad. On the one hand, Philadelphia can't claim they beat the Beasts of the East (Pittsburgh and Washington) but to be fair, they could only play who they were scheduled to.
At the same time, Philadelphia was always considered to be one of the top teams in the East. They just took the long way getting to where they are. Their scoring depth is worrisome, no doubt. Richards, Carter, Gagne, Giroux, and Briere can light up a scoreboard fairly quickly. JVR and Hartnell give them even more balance on their checking line. So yeah, they're not exactly the Edmonton Oilers.
Bartl: Contrary to the Feather, I'm going to say neither. The Flyers have great scoring depth with Richards, Carter, Gagne, et al, but I wouldn't go so far as to say I'm scared. The Blackhawks have the defensive capabilities even on their scoring lines with Toews, Byfuglien and Hossa to keep those guys at bay. To the latter, in no way am I UN-impressed by the Flyers' run. I don't care if you're playing St. Mary of the Blind, to come back from 0-3 down in an NHL playoff series is beyond difficult. The Devils were a weak No. 2 seed, but dispatching them in five games? Then they beat a goaltender in Jaroslav Halak who sent the Presidents Trophy winners and defending Cup champs packing. Give this team the credit it's due.
Block: Allow me to play the devil’s advocate. I’m sure there are those somewhere right now muttering how impressive the Hawks are, but they didn’t beat the Red Wings to get here. I don’t know how fair that is? Chicago did get bounced by the Wings in five last spring and the Hawks weren’t exactly successful when they faced a healthy Detroit roster this season either. BUT, the Hawks did just sweep the team who just previously extinguished the Wings from the playoffs in quick order. So, give the Flyers a lot of credit. They beat the best Devils’ team since the lockout and defeating a 3-0 series’ deficit is a damn fine feat. Dismantling the team who exterminated the Eastern Conference’s two most ballyhooed squads is an even finer accomplishment.
What Flyer is going to keep you up at night?
Sam: I think Richards and Toews might get in a knife-fight at center ice, such is their desire and determination. Gagne is a true sniper, but I don't know that he's fully healthy, same with Carter. I love Hartnell, but he hasn't been that effective this season. Pronger is going to hurt someone, I'm sure. So I'll go with Giroux, who is probably going to avoid our main checkers and gives the Flyers scary depth when he's on. He's going to walk around Hendry and Sopel on a couple occasions.
Feather: Briere, in particular, is scary because of his resistance to shoot anywhere but high-glove and no one needs to be reminded about Niemi's glove.
Bartli: As much as it pains me to say it, I'm going with Chris Pronger. Unlike Vancouver and San Jose, Pronger will not allow Byfuglien to make a presence in front of Leighton. And if Byfuglien does get consistent position, it won't be an ease chore. Pronger showed he's still an exceptional passer with great ice vision, making him a threat at both ends of the ice. Add in the intangibles of him playing in Cup Final and being a veteran playing against a very young team, he's a guy that worries me -- a tad.
Block: If Simon Gagne and Jeff Carter are truly healthy, the Flyers are the most prolific bunch the Hawks will see in these playoffs. Danny Briere and Scott Hartnell can be series’ shifters should they choose to be. If Carter’s healthy enough, he needs to move back to his center spot and Briere should shift back to wing where he’s less likely to disappear as he would head-up against Toews, Sharp, Bolland and Madden. Mike Richards will just about cancel-out the Hawk captain. And Claude Giroux is the most dangerous of them all. Though the ‘many faces of the Flyers’ intangible is the one I’d be most concerned with. Philadelphia will battle throughout. They did take Game 3 of the Montreal series off but aside from that night, they’re on an eight-game run of nearly flawless hockey. But Pronger, Hartnell and if Daniel Carcillo gets into this series, can’t help themselves but take stupid penalties. The matchup is close enough that if the Hawks don’t take advantage of those opportunities, they may lose the series right then because Pronger especially tends to get everything out of his system in one night.
Sam: With all the said, the Flyers haven't seen anything resembling this attack, and I doubt Michael Leighton can hold up. While the Flyers have impressive depth, the Hawks depth is just slightly better. While their d-corps is very good, the Hawks is just a little better. With Laviolette behind the bench, there's little chance the Flyers do anything but go up and down with us, and that usually spells death. Hawks in 6.
Feather: This will be the toughest opponent the Hawks have to close out since the Preds. Philadelphia is not going to go away no matter what happens. They could get clobbered by 6 goals, lose a triple overtime game, doesn't matter, they'll give the Hawks their best punch in each and every game. It won't be easy; it won't be fun to watch at times, but we'll say Hawks in 7.
Bartl: Prediction: Blackhawks in 6 extremely difficult, hard-fought, oh-my-god-I-can't-take-this-anymore games. If anyone wants to read up on how the Flyers didn't beat anyone to get there, how they had the 19th-best record out of 30 teams in the regular season and limped into the playoffs on the last day of the regular season, then let them be stupid. Philadelphia will not lay down, and they're a good enough team to surprise the Blackhawks in at least two games. If Nashville can do it, Philly sure as hell can, too.
Block: Hawks in Six. This series can go any number of ways really. I could see the Hawks in five. I can easily paint a picture with Flyers as champs skating the Cup on United Center ice. Over a long series though, I can’t see the Flyers keeping pace with the Hawks using just four defenseman, no matter how great Chris Pronger is. The Hawks are simply too quick and Michael Leighton’s athleticism will be exposed when his defenders are busy chasing the four and five Hawks around the defensive zone. Flyers take the opener and their second game at home, but the Hawks wear them down and skate the Cup for the first time in 49 years. Because "wait til next year" isn’t an option.
Finally, isn't McClure's facial hair just about the worst thing you've ever seen?
Sam: It's taking years off my life, in all honesty.
Feather: With a face as beautiful as his, why he would see fit to grow something that resembles a dead raccoon is beyond us.
Bartl: It could probably use some man-scaping, buddy. Get yourself a pair of scissors and trim that shit. Then again, you've seen my playoff "beard," so...
Block: Worse than Fels? Wow! Why would he ever cover up that gorgeous face? All for love of your Hawks, I suppose. Hey, if Jonathan Toews must turn himself into a Dateline NBC candidate all for the sake of artificial team unity, why not Second City Hockey?