It's hard to believe we finally return and a wild 2009-10 has commenced with the Chicago Blackhawks ending a long drought- thanks to Patrick Kane's sudden death sneaker thru Michael Leighton's wickets which only he knew was in, stunning Philadelphia, Doc Emrick and NBC to deliver the Original Six franchise's first Cup since 1961.
Kudos to Conn Smythe captain Jonathan Toews and dynamic running mate Kane, who helped lead one of the league's most riveting young teams to the sport's pinnacle. Amazing how quickly Joel Queenville's club did it too, going from last Spring's rise to the Conference Final all the way to champions in two postseasons. Awesome stuff from arguably the most talented, rich roster in the game. Duncan Keith was a beast all year teaming with overlooked partner Brent Seabrook to form the best tandem. The third time was the charm for Marian Hossa, who overcame the fluky Scott Hartnell equalizer off his skate after Queeneville foolishly sat back, forcing dramatics. Good for Hossa, who this time was much more effective these playoffs. Though he only lit the lamp three times, the star was superb in all facets, hustling all over the ice and setting example.
While Hossa redeemed himself, what could be said about Dave Bolland and Dustin Byfuglien? Both were money during the magical run, scoring and setting up big goals as well as throwing their weight around. You could easily make the argument that Bolland- not Toews- was Chi-town's best player and deserved playoff MVP. But they went with the overall playoff leading scorer who certainly dominated Vancouver and San Jose as these Blackhawks went through a tough trio of Nashville, Vancity and San Jose. Remarkably, the division rival Preds pushed them the most, coming very close to leading 3-2 before the Hawks rallied to win it.
Enough can't be said about Patrick Sharp, who notched timely goals during the run, including some daggers against his former team for Lord Stanley. The Flyers didn't exactly come out on top in that trade. Hell. Even former pest Ben Eager got them early in the series, helping the Windy City go up two-nil before Peter Laviolette's pesky bunch got back in it. If ever a team deserved a better fate, it was this tough Flyer bunch who never heard the words 'give up.' No matter what obstacles (injuries, 0-3 down), they were a T-E-A-M, proving it with determined play that even won over this rival fan. Anyone who knows me knows I got no love for the Flyers but they really get mad props. You represented our conference proudly, showing that never say die attitude that only Rocky could appreciate. And you can bet the legions of Philly fanatics who booed Santa stood proudly even after Kane's stunner, leading to the most anti-climatic ending in Cup history. Yeah. Elias to Arnott was a lot better a decade prior.
Kudos to Jeff Carter, Ian Laperriere and especially Simon Gagne for igniting the orange and black back with the OT winner staving off elimination at Wachovia in Game Four versus Beantown. We all know what happened afterwards. One of the most historic playoff comebacks ever. And to think, they dismantled the Habs and had Chicago concerned before the wild end to the Cup. Would it have shocked anyone if the Flyers had pulled that out, they go into United Center and win the series? Considering how tough they were led by Mike Richards and royal pain Chris Pronger, not at all. Look at the contributions they got from Scott Hartnell, Claude Giroux and former Wing Ville Leino, who really came of age during the special run.
And what of the unlikely netminding duo of Leighton and Brian Boucher? Two journeymen taking this team who snuck in thanks to Bouch outshining Henrik Lundqvist in the shootout, nearly doing the unthinkable. Who needs goaltending? When one of his netminders seemed off, Laviolette had the magic touch or even a weird injury like to Boucher versus Boston allowing Leighton to come in and steal the show. When you have a blueline led by Pronger and big minute logger Kimmo Timonen, it really helps.
As Hasan noted much earlier during his team's first round ouster, this wasn't your normal low seventh seed that just made the cut. They had star power up front and on D and it showed all Spring.
There also were heart and soul types like Blair Betts and Laperriere risking themselves with tenacity on the PK. Hence. Lappy taking one to the eye when the Devils were all but finished. The kind of yeoman work you need to go deep. It was that kinda gritty effort that made Philly so proud of these Flyers, who brought that Broad Street mentality with them. In the end, even though they came up a little short of delivering the franchise's first Cup in 35 years, the orange and black were winners.
No wonder the series was so popular, garnering excellent ratings which demonstrate just how far the game's come. It helped to have two of the largest markets, who boast strong fanbases. However, the action was fast, furious and ferocious. Precisely the kind of in your face playoff hockey we can appreciate. In the end, the best team won.
As it turned out, Antti Niemi was a little better than Leighton, who the Hawks chased a couple of times en route to becoming champions. A Finn getting his name on the chalice who wasn't exactly a household name. He didn't have to be.
A toast to both cities on an outstanding Cup Final.
BONY's Derek Felix