The incredible run of the 2010 Philadelphia Flyers came to a crushing halt Wednesday night on the Wachovia Center ice. Patrick Kane slipped an overtime marker past Michael Leighton and the Blackhawks claimed their first Stanley Cup since 1961 – leaving the Flyers 0 for their last 6 in Stanley Cup Final appearances. It’s a tough pill to swallow for the Flyers and their fans, and while the wound is still fresh today, it is healing slightly a little better than it was yesterday. The Flyers enjoyed a remarkable ride en route to the franchise’s first Cup Final appearance since 1997. As a seven seed, they knocked off the two-seeded New Jersey Devils in five games in round one, made history when they came back to eliminate the Boston Bruins in seven games in round two, and dispatched the Montreal Canadiens in five games in the Eastern Conference Final to claim hold of their first Prince of Wales trophy in 13 years. This was a team that was 14th in the Eastern Conference at one point this season, and made a coaching switch midway through the year that started with the team losing seven of its first nine under Peter Laviolette. However, they bought into his system, they kept believing, and now they are going to be able to raise a banner at the Wachovia Center next season. Although it may not be the ultimate goal, I think we can all agree that “2010 Eastern Conference Champions” is pretty sweet.
Now, onto my series recap. Obviously, all the points here will be Flyers related, so when my Series MVP isn’t a ‘Hawk, don’t get all crazy on me. I know this, and I did it purposely. I’ve broken it up into three categories: 1) Series MVP, 2) Series Turning Point, 3) Why the Flyers Lost. I left out the “What has to change for the next series” category, because, well, there is no ‘next series’. That is, until, next postseason….
1) SERIES MVP: Danny Briere, Right Wing.
Many will argue Ville Leino should be here, and many others will say Scott Hartnell was more deserving. However, in my opinion, it was the third part of that line that was easily the most important – and certainly the most valuable. Danny Briere finished the postseason as the leading point scorer in all of the National Hockey League. He had twelve points in the six game series against Chicago – easily making him the highest scoring player in the series, and finished the playoffs with 12 goals and 18 assists. While many – myself included – look for more from Briere in the regular season because of his gigantic contract, there’s certainly no denying that he earns his paycheck when the year matters most: the playoffs. His speed and skill were heavily on display throughout the entire postseason, and I think that despite his regular season struggles, Briere has completely endured himself to the Flyers’ fan base with his postseason performance. He made the most of his first career appearance in the Stanley Cup Final, and let’s hope it’s in the cards for him to make a few more return trips there in the Orange and Black.
2) SERIES TURNING POINT: Game Four’s Final Minutes.
I understand the reasoning as to why Game Five may be many people’s turning point for this series, but it was not. Instead, this series took a turn for the worst for the Flyers with less than ten minutes remaining in the Flyers’ 5-3 Game Four victory over Chicago. Sure, the Flyers won the game, and ultimately evened up the series at two games a piece, but that wasn’t the bigger story. The more important, and far more telling fact of Game Four was that in the period’s final minutes, ‘Hawks coach Joel Quenneville switched up his lines, and Chicago absolutely dominated the play. The Flyers couldn’t clear the puck from the defensive zone if their lives depended on it, and Chicago smelled blood with their newfound momentum. They carried that same strategy that came up just short in Game Four into Game Five, and ran the Flyers literally out of Chicago and on the next flight back to Philadelphia. It was certainly a much tighter game in Game Six – hence the score being tied after sixty minutes and heading into overtime – but with their new line combinations, Chicago still dominated heavily and controlled the play for long durations of the game. The new lines gave Chicago new life, and ultimately a Stanley Cup. We can thank the furious push from the ‘Hawks in Game Four for re-installing the confidence needed to be successful in the playoffs and tight situations. It’s the reason there’s a parade in Chicago today.
3) WHY THE FLYERS LOST: Antti Niemi was (slightly) better than Michael Leigthon/Brian Boucher.
Game One: 5 goals, Game Two: 1 goal, Game Three: 4 goals, Game Four: 5 goals, Game Five 4 goals, Game Six: 3 goals. Antti Niemi was not magnificent. In fact, most of the time – aside from Game Two – he wasn’t even consistently all that good. However, he managed to somehow be just a little bit better than the Flyers goaltenders Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher. Boosh relieved Leighton twice in tight, high scoring games in Chicago (1 & 5), but took home the loss in each contest. Niemi was never pulled, although no one would have questioned Quenneville had he done it at specific points in the series. Instead, the Finnish Fortress was just simply OK. And, with how the goaltending went in this series, OK was “good enough”. Niemi made two critical stops in Game Six to Leighton’s one. Leighton’s toe save on Jonathan Toews with under six minutes to go paved the way for Scott Hartnell’s goal that tied the game in regulation. However, Niemi’s breakaway save on Simon Gagne early in the second, and his acrobatic flop to stop Jeff Carter in the waning minutes of the third period were truly the game savers. In the end, I must reluctantly say, it was Niemi>Leighton/Boucher.