Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Cup is halfway full - here come the Hawks, Philadelphia

Game 1 felt more like going to a basketball game and having a hockey game break out.

Not surprisingly, in Game 2, it was like watching a defense clinic for the first period. The Hawks took 9 SOG; the Flyers took only 3. Period turned into a goalie clinic as the defense lightened up a little and offense finally surged; SOGs went 13 for Chicago, 15 Philadelphia.

How fitting that the first person to score - 17:09 into the second period - would be Marian Hossa.

Although Hossa described his goal as a "garbage goal", the joy and relief at having finally scored again in the playoffs was written large across his face in the moment. His teammates were happy and the fans were ecstatic.

More importantly, Hossa's was the goal that broke the 0-0 tie, an important momentum changer. Unlike the scoreless first, the Blackhawks put two in the Flyers' net - and not only that, but scored twice in less than half a minute, with Ben Eager putting in the next one.

Games 1 and 2 could not have been more different, but what they both emphasized is the Blackhawks' incredible depth, with seven players bagging eight goals - and none of those first-line players named Toews, Kane or Byfuglien.

In this second game, the Flyers also finally racked up their equal share of penalties, all indicative of the kind of highly physically brand of hockey that they like to play: cross checking, elbowing, and unsportsmanlike conduct. The game's comic highlight came when Flyer Dan Carcillo attempted to check Tomas Kopecky, but the Blackhawk saw him coming, dodged the hit - and Carcillo heavily body-slammed his own teammate, Jeff Carter, knocking him flat on the ice.

Simon Gagne of the Flyers did manage to get one past Antti Niemi a few minutes into the third, but otherwise, the Blackhawks' goaltender showed the fortitude and bounce-back ability that he has shown all year. He has yet to lose two in a row, and he usually follows a loss with an outstanding win - or a shutout. And while Monday wasn't a loss for the Hawks, it was one of those "bad games", and Niemi bounced back accordingly.

It was interesting to note that unlike Game 1, where the Hawks played so-so for most of the first two periods and then locked down the third, Game 2 went the opposite way. The Hawks looked more like they were simply trying to preserve the 1-point lead in the third period, instead of fighting for a larger lead. The SOGs in the third reflected this, with the Flyers getting 15 SOGs and the Hawks limited to just 4.

This, of course, meant that not only did Niemi have to work harder and save their collective skins again - and do so, as he always does in the third, brilliantly - but that kind of period gave the Flyers some confidence that maybe, just maybe, they could pull out some more miracle comeback mojo like they did against the Bruins.

Flyers coach Peter Laviolette hinted pretty broadly today that his team could "put a little bit of doubt" into the Finnish rookie, saying his team is capable of high goal counts and lots of pressure.

Clearly, he - like everybody else - underestimates Niemi.

Nashville played in-your-face, crash-the-net hockey. So did the Canucks. So did the Sharks. Did you see Niemi crack in any of those? If anything, Niemi gets more focused in those situations. He is excellent at tracking the puck, and even throughout the playoffs, you can watch him getting better and better in his control as the games roll on.

I guess maybe in light of Leighton pulling out three shutouts against the pooped-out Canadiens, Laviolette has forgotten that Niemi was the only goalie to come out of the first round with two shutouts. Even the likes of Brodeur and Luongo couldn't claim that.

Niemi doesn't like to lose. That's a good attitude to have in a goalie. He wants the wins - all the time. He racked up the third most shutouts in the league during the regular season - seven - with just 39 games/26 wins played. That's 1 shutout for every 5.6 games played and means that 20% of his wins were shutouts. His first playoff season is so far 14-4 (a record for the Blackhawks franchise), with a 2.40 GAA and .919 Sv% to date.

While a certain amount of shutouts can also be credited towards the team's defense, a lot of credit has to be given to the goalie as well. His teammates and coach have repeatedly, and decisively, proclaimed their faith and trust in the Finnish goaltender.

Miikka Kiprusoff was the first Finnish goaltender to win a game in the Stanley Cup Final round with the Sharks in 2001. But if Antti Niemi can take his team all the way, then he will be the first Finnish goaltender to ever hoist the coveted silver trophy - and only the fourth rookie goaltender in NHL history to do so.

Sensibly, the Blackhawks have stated that they're approaching each game "one at a time", and each one is a "must-win". In a playoff series, there is no room to give your opposition a win or even hope of a win. There is absolutely no doubt in anybody's mind that going back to their own barn, in front of their like-to-see-blood home fans, that the Philadelphia homeboys are going to regroup, become even more physical, and come out playing desperate, throw-the-kitchen-sink hockey from the opening whistle.

What the Flyers should be worried about: the Blackhawks haven't even played their best games yet.

Some will say that the top lines are cancelling each other out. To an extent, this may be true; like talent versus like talent. Big Buff up against Big Ego.

Patrick Kane has managed to disappear somehow in the past few games, not just the first two against the Flyers, but it was starting to happen a bit in the Sharks series as well. Worst of all, going against a strongly physical team like the Flyers, Kane has occasionally made moves to avoid getting hit where he should've held on to the puck a little longer, and hoped a burst of his speed and stick skill could've made the difference instead of making a bad turnover.

The fans certainly notice the tendency. If you doubt that, sit in the 300s some night and listen to fans chatting about him needing to "man up and take a few hits". (Said a lot less politely than that, of course.)

It's hockey, Kaner. Your linemates will do what they can to get you space and keep you from getting hit, but you can't rely on that always being the case. Sure, you're a bit smaller than a lot of the big guys who play defense, but use that to your advantage. Take some martial arts so you won't be afraid of being hit or taking punches; and then some yoga or pilates to improve your flexibility and reflexes, and hit the gym a little harder to bulk up a little. Speed will fade with age, so you need to work on those skills now, before you need to adjust later.

The irony here, of course, is that Kane loves the spotlight. He thrives when he can be a bit showy and even a bit of a ham. (Case in point - see the recent post game interview where he's saying, "We love you, Chicago!") But the Flyers aren't giving him - and aren't about to give him - the kind of room he needs and he specializes in to be his best.

Jonathan Toews and Dustin Byfuglien are working hard, too, but the lines the Flyers match up against them are working equally hard to shut them down. It's a shame that both their scoring/points streaks had to end, but they're still out there, putting in the effort - and in Buff's case, probably turning black-and-blue from all the blatant whacks with the stick that Pronger's been giving him in front of the Flyers net.

The Flyers have also decided to attempt to resort to mind games. Front and center is snarky, sarcastic, condescending Chris Pronger, who makes a game out of taunting and baiting the media. He also displayed petty, unsportsmanlike behavior at the end of both of the first two games, for which frankly, I hope he has to go home and explain to his three kids why Daddy is acting childish in the face of a loss.

The really sad thing about Pronger is that he really doesn't need to resort to any of that behavior. He's a talented defenseman with good speed and skills, and can make teams better by his skills (much like Marian Hossa does), evidenced by the fact that he's won the Hart Trophy (2000) and the James Norris Memorial Trophy (2000), played on several All-Star Games, been on the Canadian Olympic team a few times (including being one of the alternative captains on the 2010 team), been on a Stanley Cup-winning team (2007 Ducks). Most hockey analysts think that on his skills and track record alone, he could easily he elected into the HHOF on his first eligibility.

But, as the old story goes: what if Pronger used his powers for good instead of evil? What if he was a positive team player - for example, the way Jonathan Toews is, making the team better as a whole not simply by being a good player and inspiring teammates to play better themselves, but because he is a genuinely likeable person/player? Just imagine it.

Sadly, Pronger seems to really enjoy taking on the bad guy role, and has done so throughout his career, racking up penalties, suspensions and trades along the way.

Let's re-state the obvious about Game 3 - expect the Flyers to come out no-holds-barred, highly physical hockey. They're going to be playing desperate - as if they haven't already been doing so. I wouldn't expect Laviolette to shake up his lines too much, as I think he felt satisfied with the third period play in Game 2 and will hope to recapture that energy.

But on the other side of the ice, there's Cool Hand Q, master of the line mix-and-match. At one point in Game 2, he threw Ben Eager into Patrick Kane's spot on the top line, and it resulted in a goal. Late in the game, Hossa and Toews were out there together in the final minutes. I fully expect Coach Quenneville to play full-ice chess on Wednesday night and shake up the top line a little, to "create some change", as he likes to say. I would expect Toews and Kane to be split up, perhaps put Kane with Hossa's line.

During the Olympics, Kane wasn't so great early in the Games, but got better and better as they rolled on. I'm thinking Game 3 will shake him out of his slump.

The Blackhawks have shown better form on the road than at home, going 7-0 in their past seven road games. The Flyers are feeling equally confident, being 7-1 in their last eight home games. The Hawks have already played - and won - in what's considered to be the most hostile away-team environment in the NHL, the San Jose Shark Tank (HP Pavillion). The Philly fans will be loud, but the Blackhawks already play in one of the loudest buildings in the league.

The Flyers will come out giving it their all, but Chicago's going to be ready to pitch it back at them.

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