Having taken an extraordinary journey from narrowly averting the disaster of missing the Stanley Cup playoffs to reaching the Final, the Philadelphia Flyers have discovered a champion’s resolve and fortitude within themselves. The same team that was deservingly branded underachievers for much of the regular season has become the sort of club that Philadelphia sports fans want to embrace.
While this is true regardless of the outcome against the Chicago Blackhawks in the Finals, a victory in the championship round would forever cement this Flyers team in the annals of team history and of Philadelphia sports history.
|Philadelphia Flyers from left, Danny Briere, Claude Giroux and James van Riemsdyk celebrate in the closing seconds of Game 5 of the NHL hockey Eastern Conference finals defeating the Montreal Canadiens, 4-2, Monday, May 24, 2010, in Philadelphia.(AP Photo/Tom Mihalek) |
The Flyers entered the regular season as The Hockey News’ pick to win the Stanley Cup. This was based largely on the acquisition of Chris Pronger
and the depth of scoring talent on the roster. But after an excessively streaky regular season that saw the club change head coaches and qualify for the playoffs on the final day of the regular season, they have had to prove their critics wrong with each successive playoff round.
The team has done just that – dismantling the Atlantic Division champion New Jersey Devils in five games in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, staging an historic comeback from a 3-0 series deficit and a 3-0 deficit in Game 7 to down the Boston Bruins in the conference semis, and shutting out the Montreal Canadiens three times in the Eastern Conference Final.
Nevertheless, the Flyers are considered underdogs heading into the Final against a Chicago club that has exhibited virtuosity at both ends of the ice all season. Chicago breezed to a Central Division championship and defeated a scrappy Nashville Predators team in six first-round games, used a significant special-teams advantage to beat the Northwest Division champion Vancouver Canucks in six and then swept the top-ranked San Jose Sharks. Many pundits have said that Chicago has superior all-around talent to Philadelphia (a debatable point) and beat a superior grade of opposition in the Western Conference playoffs (which is tougher to argue).
For their part, the Flyers players have no interest in answering the skeptics in public. They would rather do so on the ice. If anything, the team members welcome the underdog label, because it serves as a reminder of the type of work ethic and unity the club must maintain to go all the way.
“We know what we can do, and we believe in each other as a team,” said forward Danny Briere
. “That’s the most important thing. I said all along that I think our team was built for the playoffs.”
Added defenseman Kimmo Timonen
, “To be honest, it makes no difference to me if we’re called the favorites or the underdogs or whatever. I don’t pay attention to any of [the talk]. The only thing we can worry about is playing our best game each night.”
In a topsy-turvy playoff year, it is perhaps fitting that both Chicago and the Flyers feature previously unheralded goaltenders. Rookie goaltender Antti Niemi has been a revelation for Chicago, while the play of journeyman Michael Leighton (who broke into the NHL with Chicago) has been an extremely pleasant surprise, both in the regular season and after he returned from injury to reassume starting chores from an injured Brian Boucher in the Boston series. Many still point to goaltending as a weak spot on the Flyers’ club heading into the Finals. The Flyers, naturally, disagree.
“[Leighton has] been great, I don’t think there’s any other word for it,” said Briere. “We play with a lot of confidence with him behind us. Obviously goaltending is huge in the playoffs, and we wouldn’t have gotten this far without ‘Leights’ or ‘Boosh’ making big saves for us.”
The 2010 Stanley Cup Final has all the makings of an evenly matched and highly competitive series. That the Flyers are being called the underdogs heading in will matter not a whit once the opening faceoff of Game 1 in Chicago is dropped on Saturday night (8:00 p.m., NBC).