Thursday, May 27, 2010

Familiar Foes

The Flyers and Blackhawks don't see each other very often. In fact, being in separate conferences, the two Stanley Cup Finalists only clash once every regular season. If you recall, this year's game ended in fantastic fashion:

The Flyers won that contest on March 13, 3-2, in a dramatic way. Simon Gagne, Scott Hartnell and of course Chris Pronger scored for the Flyers, while Kris Versteeg and Marian Hossa tallied for the Blackhawks. But the man who stole the show was none other than Michael Leighton, who stopped 39 of 41 shots against the high-octane Hawks.

While one nail-biting game is hardly anything to go off of when it comes to this championship series that begins on Saturday, these teams are more familiar with one another than you might think. And it starts with the man who stood out more than any other the last time these two teams hit the ice against one another.

Michael Leighton

Rest assured, you will hear plenty about the MIchael Leighton-Chicago connection throughout this series. The Blackhawks selected Leighton in the 6th round of 1999 NHL draft, 165th overall. In the 2002-03 season, the 21-year-old got his first shot in the NHL for Chicago, playing in 8 games, starting 6 while posting a 2-3-2 record with a 2.82 goals against average, .913 save percentage and one shutout. Not bad for a fill-in rookie.

The next season, Leighton had the opportunity to compete for the starting job, a job he wound up not holding on to. He started 33 games that season, played in 34, but just couldn't buy a win. His record was a pretty awful 6-18-8, and his numbers slipped to a 2.99 goals against average and .900 save percentage, though he did manage two shutouts. Still, Leighton was a young goaltender who showed some promise … promise the Blackhawks didn't think was worth their time. Leighton never played another game for Chicago again, toiled in the minors before the Flyers picked up him in 2006-07, where he played in four games and was nothing short of awful — 2-2 with a 3.70 gaa and .882 save percentage — before the Flyers sent him packing and Nashville scooped him up … for all of one game.

Then it was off to Carolina, where Leighton put up pedestrian (at best) numbers as a backup to Cam Ward, but also where he developed a relationship with Peter Laviolette. The rest, as they say, is history.

And the intriguing stories and familiarity in this series don't stop there.

Patrick Sharp

Better known as the one who got away. Drafted in the third round (95th overall) of the 2001 NHL draft by the Flyers, Sharp was a superstar for the AHL Philadelphia Phantoms, chomping at the bit to get a shot with the big club. In the 2002-03 season, he finally got a taste, playing three games. But 2003-04 was his big break, playing in 41 games for the Flyers.

Stuck on a talented roster, Sharp struggled to find ice time. He was basically relegated to the fourth line, limiting his chances. But it was pretty clear that Sharp had something special in his game. Problem was, he wasn't afforded the opportunity to display it. After just 5 goals and 2 assists in 41 games, and a minus-3 rating, both the Flyers and the fans were ready to see Sharp break out in 2005-06. But with the arrivals of guys like Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, R.J. Umberger, et al, it was the same old problem for Sharp. There just wasn't enough ice time to go around, so the Flyers traded Sharp to the Blackhawks during the season along with Eric Meloche in exchange for major flop Matt Ellison and a 2006 third-round pick.

All Sharp has done since then is become a four-time 20-goal scorer and big-time leader for this young, talented Chicago team. He's an assistant captain on the squad, and in his four full seasons in Chcago has put up 35 (20 goals), 62 (36 goals), 44 (26 goals, in just 61 games due to injury) and 66 (25 goals) points. He finished a plus-24 this year and a plus 23 in 2007-08. He's become one of the better players in the NHL, and big, big reason Chicago has had a hockey renaissance. Trading Sharp goes down as one of the worst trades in Flyers history. Like I said, the one who got away.

Ben Eager

Believe it or not, Ben Eager was drafted 23rd overall in the 2002 NHL draft by the Phoenix Coyotes. I say believe or not because Eager has never shown a particularly keen scoring touch in the NHL, the type of thing you expect from a forward picked in the first round. Eager has always been more of a Todd Fedoruk, Dan Carcillo type. He certainly was when he was in Philadelphia, which is where he got his first taste of NHL action.

Eager was somewhat of a fan favorite here in Philadelphia, a tough guy who wasn't afraid to go with anyone. He regularly ran people over and racked up the penalty minutes. In 2005-06, he played in 25 games, scoring 3 goals and 5 assists while garnering 18 penalty minutes, showing some promise as a big hitter who could also score a little bit. But in 2006-07, he really began to mold into the player he is today. In 63 games, he scored 6 goals and added 5 assists … while heading to the sin bin for 233 minutes. He also was a minus-13. Eager liked to hit and liked to fight, so that's what he did.

In 2007-08, however, Eager just couldn't stay in the lineup. He played just 23 games, not registering a single point, finishing a minus-8 with 62 penalty minutes before the Flyers shipped him off. No one ever questioned his hustle or desire, and fans loved to see him hit and fight, but Eager was more than expendable. He wasn't fitting in with the direction of the Flyers, so they traded him to Chicago.

Since, Eager has continued to be aggressive physically, but he's channeled his energy much better, becoming a key contributor to this team. At 6'2, 230, he's one of the bangers on this team, one of the guys who helps create a little space for the superstars. The past two seasons he's scored a combined 32 points and been a plus-10. And he's the leader of the fourth line that helps wear down the opposition with a punishing forecheck. He'd probably fit in really well under Peter Laviolette's style. Now he'll be showing the Flyers what he's capable of as a mature 26-year-old for the Blackhawks.

Mike Richards/Jonathan Toews

No, Mike Richards never was a Blackhawk and Jonathan Toews never a Flyer. In fact, both players were drafted by their current teams, and both became captains at a very young age — Richards was the third-youngest captain in Flyers' history, and Toews was the youngest Blackhawks captain ever and third-youngest in league history. Oh yeah, and they played together on a line for gold-medal-winning Team Canada in the Olympics.

That's right, just a few short months ago, Toews and Richards weren't just teammates, they were linemates. And often, this duo was part of Canada's best line, definitely the team's best defensive line. Now they're facing each other as the respective faces of their franchises in the Stanley Cup Finals. And you can bet your ass they'll be matched up against one another quite often on the ice, with the trio of Toews, Patrick Kane and Dustin Byfuglien going against Richards, Simon Gagne and Jeff Carter. Talk about a battle between heavyweights. This should be a war.

Toews and Richards are very similar players. The past three seasons, Richie has posted 75, 80 and 62 points; Toews has put up 54, 69 and 68. They are both very sound defensive players and the undisputed leaders of their teams. The key difference in my book, and the reason I believe Richards is the superior player, even if only slightly, is in the physicality department. Richards hits like Ben Eager. He defends like a top-notch defenseman. And he's one of the best penalty-killers in all of hockey. He'll have to be all of that against Toews and company. This is a matchup I can't wait to see.

Chris Pronger/Duncan Keith/Brent Seabrook

More teammates of Mike Richards and Jonathan Toews for team Canada. Pronger was part of the blue line along with Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Seabrook didn't see much time for Canada, but he was on the roster. Pronger and Keith, on the other hand, were defensive stalwarts for Canada. Pronger began the tournament playing alongside Drew Doughty a little bit, with young and old sharing the ice, while Keith played a bit with Scott Niedermayer. But that didn't last long. Keith joined Doughty and that duo became the most dynamic on the blue line for Canada, while Pronger teamed with Niedermayer to form the old man pairing that simply shut down the world's best.

Pronger and Keith are two very different defensemen. Both are excellent, no question about it, but their similarities end there. Keith is a 26-year-old blue-liner with swift skating ability and tremendous skill. At 6'1, 196 pounds, he's more of a finesse type defender who also isn't afraid to go into the corners. Think a younger, faster Kimmo Timonen. The guy is a plus-73 for his career, and this season he played in all 82 games, scoring 14 goals and registering 55 assists for 69 points. He's good.

Pronger, meanwhile, is a 35-year-old veteran who is by any account slow-footed, however can cover a lot ground with his long strides and even longer reach. While not a freight-train who looks to hit anything and everything, Pronger is very much a player who relies on his smarts and his physicality. He will hit you and hit you hard. He'll also score, evident by his 10 goals and 45 assists, good for 55 points and plus-22 rating this season. For his career, he's a plus-175, and he's seen it all, been a captain, and won a Cup.

Now, he's playing better than any defenseman in the NHL. Even better than the supremely talented Keith. Pronger has been incredible all year, and taken his game to even greater heights this postseason. Even at 35, he's logging 30 minutes a game, rarely wasting energy. He shuts every opposition's best players down. Every one of them. His outlet passes, tremendous point blasts and even screening acumen have been huge assets to the Flyers on offense. His shot-blocking, positioning, size and strength, not to mention his ability to clear the porch in front of the net, have been key reasons why this defense is so good. Quite simply, he's been awesome. And he'll need to be yet again, for one more series.

It will be a great matchup, Kimmo Timonen and Chris Pronger leading Philadelphia's defense corps against the pairing of Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith. Obviously, with Timonen and Pronger not playing together most of the game, Braydon Coburn and Matt Carle will be key as well. Should be fun to see the veteran Pronger compared to the younger Keith.

Brian Campbell/Danny Briere

This duo is as familiar with one another as they come. Danny Briere and Brian Campbell were teammates together in Buffalo for four seasons, from 2002-03 to 2006-07. That duo combined to post 352 points in those four seasons (230 for Briere and 122 for Campbell). They both became offensive forces together for the Sabres, with Briere the team's most lethal offensive forward and Campbell the team's most potent offensive defenseman.

Campbell and Briere were two of the driving forces behind Buffalo's emergence this decade into an Eastern Conference power. They both became all-stars, made names for themselves, and signed lucrative deals to try and help teams take the next step. For Briere, that was his big contract he signed in Philadelphia, where said contract has been a topic of huge discussion — but Briere has been fantastic when he plays, especially in the playoffs. Without him this year, the Flyers wouldn't be close to the Cup Finals, just as they wouldn't have made it to the Eastern Conference Finals a couple years ago without him. Campbell signed with the Blackhawks after being a rental for San Jose, and in his two seasons in Chicago, he's been good, but not to the point of justifying his contract in many people's eyes, just like Briere. However, Campbell is an important part of Chicago's blue line, if for nothing more than his offense (because he sucks defensively), and he's helped the Blackhawks get here as well, providing a calming, veteran influence on this young team.

Now the two former teammates will duel for the ultimate prize, and you can bet they'll be one-on-one with one another quite a bit. Should be fun.

Patrick Kane/James van Riemsdyk

Two players that will forever be linked. Coming off the worst finish in franchise history, the Flyers were looking to get the first overall pick and select the consensus No. 1, Patrick Kane. However, the Blackhawks, who finished with 15 more points than the Flyers but finished near the bottom in the Western Conference, won the lottery coin flip. As a result, the Blackhawks selected Kane No. 1 overall, while the Flyers settled for the second pick, which they used to take James van Riemsdyk.

There's no question who has come out ahead thus far. Kane took his spot in Chicago's lineup from day one, playing in 82 games in 2007-08, putting up 21 goals and 51 assists. He hasn't scored less than 70 points since, following that up with 70 points (25 g, 45 a) last year and 88 points (30 g, 58 a) this year. He is one of the game's stars, playing alongside Toews.

Van Riemsdyk has been slower to develop. Instead of jumping right into the NHL, or even the AHL, like Kane, JVR went to college. Finally, he joined the Flyers late last year, and this season as a rookie posted 15 goals and 20 assists in 78 games for 35 points. Those numbers are hardly in Kane's territory, though van Riemsdyk has shown many flashes of brilliance this year. He's big, he's strong and he's incredibly fast, especially with the puck on his stick rumbling through the neutral zone. He has a long way to go to catch up to Kane, but he has a really bright future playing alongside Claude Giroux. I expect big things from him, but there's no doubt that he will forever be linked to Kane. It's a tough spot for JVR. As much potential as he has, there isn't a Flyers fan alive who wouldn't rather have Kane. But those are the breaks.

At least JVR will forever live in Flyers lore, scoring the one goal Peter Laviolette begged for in the awful first period in Philadelphia's dramatic, improbable come-from-behind game 7 win in Boston to complete the epic 3-game-to-none, 3-goals-to-none comeback.

Brian Boucher

In case you forgot, and I wouldn't blame you if you did, the goaltender who came to the rescue after Michael Leighton Part 1 and before Michael Leighton Part 2, the guy who began as a rookie for the Flyers by leading the team to the Eastern Conference Finals and within one win of the Stanley Cup Finals some 10 years ago, spent a season a Blackhawk.

In 2006-07, Boucher was Chicago's backup netminder, playing in 15 games and starting 13. He was beyond terrible, posting a 1-10 record with a 3.27 goals against average and .884 save percentage. But for the Flyers, well, they wouldn't be anywhere near where they are without him. After struggling initially, he played tremendous down the stretch for Philadelphia, coming up with the biggest penalty-shot save in franchise history and doing the chicken dance to boot:

If Brian Boucher doesn't outduel Henrik Lundqvist in that shootout, the Flyers never even make the playoffs, let alone the Stanley Cup Finals. Then he dominated against the Devils, and played admirably against Boston before getting injured. Now, Boucher is hoping to return as the backup to Leighton for this series. Two former Blackhawks goalies out to prove they're better than Chicago thought.

Kim Johnsson

Johnsson has been scratched throughout the playoffs for Chicago, but he is on the roster. At 34, he's not the player he once was. But when Johnsson was with the Flyers —  coming over from New York in the Eric Lindros trade — he became the best defenseman on the team. A smooth-skating blue-liner who moved the puck with the best of them, I always liked Johnsson. I always felt he was underappreciated, much the way Kimmo is nowadays. Though Johnsson was never as good as Timonen. But he was very, very good, putting up 147 points and finishing as a plus-player every season in his four years as a Flyer. I doubt we'll see him in the Stanley Cup Finals, but he is on the team.

So there you have it. Two teams that face each other all of one time each season are more familiar with each other than you might expect. Should make for an interesting series, and if their one matchup this season is any indication, quite an exciting one too. Let's hope the outcome is the same as it was back in March.

Four more wins. Just four more.


BallHype: hype it up!

1 comment:

  1. awesome, well-written rundown of the connections between the 2 teams