Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Regular Season Flashback

I'm fairly certain that I can count the number of people who predicted a Chicago-Philadelphia Stanley Cup Final on one hand. The two teams had entirely opposite seasons with Chicago flying high while the Flyers needed a shootout in the final regular season game to get in. However, both teams will square off on Saturday night in Game One for the NHL's biggest prize.

If we flashback to March 13, 2010, though, we may get a glimpse of how this series will be played. Michael Leighton was in the net for the Flyers that day, but the Blackhawks had Cristobal Huet between the pipes. Antti Niemi will be the starter on Saturday, so there's one change for the Blackhawks already.

Let's take a look at that game, goal by goal, and see how that game ended up.

Brent Seabrook's blind backhanded pass came up a little short after the Flyers started the dump-and-chase, and Daniel Carcillo picked up the misplayed pass. Seabrook then chases Carcillo around the net, leaving Simon Gagne wide open on the left side. Carcillo finds Gagne, and Huet is at his mercy. Make it 1-0 for the Flyers.

Seabrook, in my view, is a much better defenceman than this, and I doubt you'll see him make such a careless error in his own zone in the Stanley Cup Final. However, the Flyers need to continue to punish the opposition's defencemen on the dump-and-chase in order to create turnovers. If they can wear down Chicago's defencemen like they did to New Jersey, Boston, and Montreal, there's a good chance they can knock off the Blackhawks.

With the Blackhawks on the powerplay, they respond with a goal as Kris Versteeg buries the Marian Hossa rebound to make it 1-1.

This goal is simply a case of a man-advantage, and some poor penalty kill coverage. Simon Gagne is out covering the point as Richards and Pronger battle along the boards with two Blackhawks. The problem? Two Flyers are along the boards while Versteeg and Hossa are open down-low. Kimmo Timonen can't cover both men, and commits to Versteeg as he gets the puck off the boards. Versteeg passes the puck to Hossa, wide open in the slot, and his initial shot is stopped by Leighton. However, Versteeg pounces on the rebound and shovels it home.

The Flyers can't get bunched up and find themselves giving up a two-on-one down-low. The Blackhawks, to their credit, spaced the zone well, and the open man - Hossa - was the catalyst for the powerplay goal.

The Blackhawks strike again as Marian Hossa's one-timer finds the back of the net before Leighton can get set, and the Blackhawks move ahead by a 2-1 score.

Troy Brouwer, not David Bolland as stated, protects the puck beautifully against Lukas Krajicek as he comes in across the blueline. His quick pass to Hossa is one-timed through Kimmo Timonen and past Leighton.

There's not much that can be done differently by the Flyers on this one in my view. Kudos to both Brouwer, who used his body to shield the puck from Krajicek's stick-check, and to Hossa, whose quick shot through the partial screen by Timonen got past Leighton.

Kimmo Timonen tees up a gorgeous slapshot stretch pass to Scott Hartnell at the Blackhawks' blueline. Hartnell gets his feet moving before Brent Sopel can catch him off the Chicago line change, and the gritty forward outworks Sopel to the net before going short side on Huet. Hartnell's goal ties the game at 2-2.

Good commentary from the colour guy on this one. The dump-in by the Blackhawks would have been fine had it not been for Leighton stopping the puck behind the net. Had the puck rattled around the boards, Chicago's change would have been made in time, and Sopel wouldn't have had to chase Hartnell. Leighton's heads-up play started this one, and his second assist on the play is huge.

Kimmo Timonen picks up the stopped puck from Leighton, and now the game is afoot. Timonen sees the Blackhawks still in the midst of a change, and spots Hartnell all alone at the Blackhawks' blueline. With pinpoint accuracy, Timonen rifles the puck down the ice to Hartnell's forehand. If this pass is behind Hartnell, Hartnell gets crossed up and Sopel has time to recover. Timonen's phenomenal pass is the second major piece of this superb goal.

Lastly, Hartnell is already in stride as he nears the blueline, making the chase that much harder for Sopel. He takes the pass on his forehand, allowing him to gain a step to cut to the inside on Sopel as he closes in on the net. Hartnell uses his body well to shield the puck from Sopel's rather feeble stick-check, and Sopel stumbles to allow Hartnell enough time to fire it past Huet on the short-side. Honestly, this was a beautiful goal from start to finish.

Aside from the slow change, the Blackhawks have to be aware of what's happening on the ice as the new line comes on. More important, Sopel needs to play tougher on that play, using his body to force Hartnell off the puck. The stick-check? Useless when the offensive player already has position on you. Sopel needs to be a much tougher defenceman if he wants his name on the Stanley Cup.

Claude Giroux's pass to Chris Pronger might have resulted in Pronger's most memorable goal thus far in his career. Pronger's tap-in past Huet with 2.1 seconds remaining put the Flyers up 3-2.

There isn't much to say here for the Flyers aside from Pronger jumping into the play, creating the odd-man rush, and Giroux's phenomenal cross-ice pass to Pronger's stick for the game-winner. Pronger really deserves credit here as he's been criticized in some circles for his foot speed this season, but he showed that his hockey sense is still strong.

The Blackhawks, on the other hand, were a mess on this play. I know Patrick Kane took serious heat from Don Cherry on Coach's Corner, but there's so much more to this play aside from Kane making a line change with six seconds to play. I'll run through this chronologically.
  • The Blackhawks have a tired line on the ice, but they don't dump the puck in to get fresh legs on the ice. Instead, Kane tries to skate the puck in. Because of this decision, he loses the puck on a Matt Carle hit as the puck rolls around the boards behind the net. Mistake #1.
  • Jonathan Toews, clearly gassed as he makes the hit on Chris Pronger in the corner, finds himself deeper in the Flyers' zone than the already-tired Kane. Mistake #2.
  • While there's no question that Toews was finishing his check on Pronger, Pronger beats Toews out of the zone to create the four-on-three situation in the neutral zone. Again, a tired Toews and a tired Kane watch four Flyers break out of the zone against three Blackhawks. Mistake #3.
  • Troy Brouwer, coming off the bench as part of the broken line change, gets caught floating as Giroux and Hartnell break up the ice with speed. Instead of matching speed with the approaching Flyers, Brouwer's flat-footed play sees him left in the dust as the Flyers turn the four-on-three into a four-on-two. Mistake #4.
While there's no doubt that the Blackhawks' young tandem of Toews and Kane were looking to generate a scoring chance and possibly hem the Flyers in their own zone, this was a wake-up call in terms of being leaders. Honestly, I think both players have been much better in the playoffs since this game, and have shown much better leadership in making good line changes throughout the playoffs.

So that's how the only regular season game between these two teams ended: Philly won 3-2 on the Chris Pronger goal with 2.1 seconds left.

Again, the Blackhawks have really turned on the jets recently as they dispatched the Sharks in four games, so there's no doubt that the Hawks are really on their game. Toews, Sharp, Kane, Byfuglien, Hossa, and Versteeg have paced the Blackhawks thus far, and their contributions will be needed against the Flyers.

The Flyers will have to be patient as they were in the previous three rounds, and capitalize on the Blackhawks' mistakes. Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, Scott Hartnell, Claude Giroux, and Daniel Briere will have to match the Blackhawks' scorers, or it will come down to how well Philly can shut down the Blackhawks' high-octane offence.

I'm excited for the Stanley Cup Final as it really looks like we might have a physical, entertaining series. Isn't that what everyone wants?

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

1 comment:

Francis at said...

I remember that game because the disappointment was so sudden. Getting scored on in the last two seconds is just tragic. Because there's nothing you can do. The game's over.

But yeah, I agree with a lot of the points you had. And I think the Hawks will take the first game and eventually the series.