The Stanley Cup Final has become synonymous with tight checking, superb goaltending and games in which every goal is precious. This year's Final between the Chicago Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers is standing those assumptions on their ear.
The crashing and bashing we've come to expect in the Final has been there -- the teams have combined to average more than 74 hits a game -- but goaltenders are getting sunburn from all the red lights going on behind them as goals pile up at a rate that hasn't been seen in three decades.
Sunday's 7-4 victory by the Hawks in Game 5 marked the second time in the series that the teams combined for 11 goals -- a total that before this spring hadn’t been reached in a Final game for 18 years, since Chicago lost 6-5 to Pittsburgh in Game 1 in 1992. The Hawks' seven goals are the most by one team in a Final game since New Jersey ran off that many against Dallas while winning 7-3 in the opener of the 2000 Final; there were just 14 goals scored in the next five games of that series.
The Flyers and Blackhawks have combined to score 40 goals in the first five games of this series. The average of eight goals per game is an enormous jump from the average of 5.54 non-shootout goals during the 1,230 regular-season games on this season's schedule.
This year's Final could end with a pair of 1-0 games (not likely the way things are going), and the Hawks and Flyers would still average six goals a game -- a figure that hasn't been reached since 1992, when Chicago and Pittsburgh averaged 6.25 in the Penguins' four-game sweep. The average hasn't exceeded seven goals since 1991, when Pittsburgh and Minnesota combined for 44 goals (7.33 per game) in the Penguins' six-game victory. If the teams continue to average eight goals a game, they'd reach offensive levels that haven't been seen since 1980, when Philadelphia and the Islanders combined for 52 goals (8.67 per game) in New York's six-game triumph.
For comparison, last year's Final between Detroit and Pittsburgh -- a series that featured Sidney Crosby and regular-season scoring champ Evgeni Malkin of the Penguins and stars like Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk of Detroit -- produced all of 31 goals in seven games, an average of 4.4 per game. No game had more than six goals scored -- a total that's been exceeded in four of the five games this year.
The 40 goals scored in the five games this year are already more than any Final, of any length, since Vancouver and the Rangers combined for 40 in New York's seven-game victory. And while both teams have big offensive stars, the scoring's been spread around -- 25 players have at least one goal, and no one has more than three.
So what's happening? Why are red lights going on like brake lights in the arena parking lot?
It's not that the goaltenders have been getting barraged with shots. The teams have combined for 303 shots on goal in the five games, an average of just over 60 per night. No team has taken more than 35 in a game or fewer than 26.
But the goaltenders have had a tough time. Chicago goaltender Antti Niemi, a hero through the first three rounds with a goals-against average of 2.33 and a save percentage of .921, has been torched for 18 goals in five games while posting a save percentage of just .883.
That's still been good enough to win three of the five games because Philadelphia's Michael Leighton has been lit up even more.
Leighton shut out Montreal three times in the Flyers' five-game victory in the Eastern Conference Finals, but those games seem like they took place in another era. Leighton has started all five games against the Hawks -- but has finished only three of them. He was lifted late in the second period of Game 1 after allowing five goals on 20 shots, then got the hook again in Game 5 after giving up three goals on 13 shots.
Not that his teammates were blaming Leighton.
"We just came out slow -- didn't move our feet, and turned pucks over," Flyers captain Mike Richards said of his team's poor showing in the first period. "(We) gave them a lot of great looks at the net and great shots. They went in. It was just us leaving a goaltender out to dry."
Not that his teammates were blaming Leighton, who escaped the loss Sunday when the Flyers scored four times -- meaning that replacement Brian Boucher was saddled with the "L."
And to be fair, goals have been going into the net in all sorts of bizarre ways.
Brent Seabrook's game-opening goal on Sunday caromed past Leighton only after clipping the skate of Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger. Philadelphia's Ville Leino got credit for the winner in Game 4 when his headed-for-the-end boards shot hit Chicago's Kris Versteeg in the back and went in. Minutes later, the Blackhawks got even in the fluke goal department when Brian Campbell's pass hit Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen's stick and went past Leighton.
"There's been bounces that go each way throughout the series," Campbell said after Game 5. "Off backs, off goaltenders, sticks breaking … it's part of the game. I'm sure the fans love it."
At least the ones who like lots of goals, anyway.